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Griff Rhys Jones' Ghanaian 'fantasy coffin' - Press information

27th Sep 2011 - 4th Dec 2011

A Ghanaian coffin in the form of television camera will be the unusual focal point of a new display about Ga art and culture at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, from Tuesday 27 September until Sunday 4 December.

The coffin, which is remarkably realistic despite its scale, was specially created last year for Griff Rhys Jones as part of the BBC television series Hidden Treasures of Africa. It is the first time since the television programme was broadcast that the general public will be able to see the ‘fantasy coffin’. The display will make links with African objects in the Centre’s Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, and in the spirit of the Collection, show that art can be found in all manner of objects.

The coffin provides a strong example of the Ga Community’s funerary practice of producing representational wooden coffins that have been specially designed to reflect a key element of the deceased person’s life-story. The ‘television camera’ was made by Daniel Oblie Mensah at ‘Hello Design Coffins’ in Accra and despite the publicity Daniel’s work has garnered, and his admission that it’s a “big business”, the carpentry workshop is in the back of a poor urban compound. Griff Rhys Jones’ coffin is made of a soft wood known as “Wawa” and is an original design. Mensah made the coffin by simply knowing the height, width and length required and with reference to a photograph that was emailed to him. Everything else was done by sight and feel and the outcome is stunning, reflecting the skill of the craftsman.

Unique to the Ga community of Ghana’s capital city Accra, the manufacture of coffins in the shape of fish, birds and animals, fruit or man-made items associated with personal status such as cars and buildings is a practice that was first by carpenter Ataa Oko in 1945. By the early 1950s Oko’s fame was spreading along the coastal region around Accra and in 1954 he established a workshop dedicated to the manufacture of the increasingly popular coffins. Although Ataa Oko was unable to earn a living from the business until the 1970s the fame of the new ‘tradition’ had begun to arouse international interest and other workshops became established in across Accra many of them additionally producing forms, such as mobile phones and other modern consumer goods (usually requested by Westerners and the European art market) began to be added to the coffin makers’ portfolios.

Whilst the production of representational coffins is itself a relatively new activity, it is based on, and inherits established Ga religious beliefs surrounding death and associated rites and rituals. Ga funerary culture dictated that it was of crucial importance that to consider not only where an individual might be buried but also how. Centred on a belief that the deceased retained his or her status in the afterlife, Ga burials became a means of influencing a propitious outcome for the individual’s fate in the next world. This was further emphasised by the understanding that access to the afterlife would be facilitated with proper honouring in the form of appropriate funeral ceremonies.

The display this autumn will explain how the coffin came to be on loan to the gallery as well as providing a profile of its maker, Daniel Oblie Mensah and showing design-drawings by Ataa Oko. The display will also explore ideas about the designed object and fine art.

Providing a highly pertinent case-study for a contemporary academic concern with issues around identity, modernity and globalism in the Twenty-first century, display will make links with Akan and Asante representational artefacts in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. It will offer suggestions for art-and-design-historical explorations of the value of the symbolic and, most importantly, serve as a reminder of the underpinning ethos of the Collection, that art is to be found in all manner of objects.

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