British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: eagle coffin from Ghana

Eagle coffinFiona Sheales, British Museum

The past 60 years have seen the emergence and development of a dynamic and unique art form in coastal towns situated close to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.

This trend began in 1951 when two carpenters decided to honour their late grand-mother’s dream to fly by burying her in a coffin shaped in the form of an aeroplane. Soon other families began to commission other coffins that represented the life achievements or aspirations of deceased relatives, or characterised aspects of their personality.

Many coffins take the form of traditional status symbols such as this eagle which is believed to have been inspired by the eagle-shaped palanquins used to carry chiefs on important public occasions. A coffin of this shape would therefore be suitable for the burial of a man of some social standing in his community.

Eagle coffin

Eagle coffin

This eagle coffin was made in 2000 in the workshop of Paa Joe (full name Joseph Tetteh Ashong) by a team of specialist carpenters. Paa Joe was one of the first craftsmen to make representational coffins, which are all hand-made on commission. Plans, photographs and sketches are rarely used, instead the components are drawn directly on to the wood which is then sawn out, planed and painted. In some cases up to 20 individually cut and shaped pieces of wood are required to form the shape of the coffin, depending on the model ordered. The eagle coffin’s body, lid and base are carved from the hardwood of the wawa tree (triplochiton scleraxylon) which does not crack and resists attacks from insects. The two wings are carved from separate pieces of wood and are joined to the body using metal hinges which allow them to be folded down flat or to be extended.

In Ghana, death is traditionally viewed as a transition from the world of the living to that of the ancestors. Ancestors are believed to exert influence and power over their living relatives so it is important to show them love and respect. One of the ways of doing this is to bury deceased family members in expensive coffins and hold big funerals. On the day of the funeral the deceased is processed through town to the graveside and large crowds of mourners will have the opportunity to see the coffin for the first time.

Although traditional subjects such as the eagle remain popular, casket choices reflect changing fashions and social aspirations. Modern consumer goods such as laptops and mobile phones provide the models for innovative new coffin shapes.

The popularity of these so-called fantasy coffins continues to grow and has stimulated a thriving industry in Ghana. Thanks to the Internet, fantasy coffins can now be ordered online and are exported all over the world to meet the needs of the diasporic Ghanaian community.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard 15 November 2012.

The Eagle coffin from Ghana is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figureNeil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

Otobo masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figure

This extraordinary painted steel sculpture was made in London by British/Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE. It depicts a man of the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria in an Otobo or hippopotamus masquerade costume; masquerade is a composite phenomenon in which song, movement, music and the different elements of the dancer’s costume are all integral parts of the performance.

The Otobo masquerade has been danced by Kalabari men for at least 200 years, yet here is a version made by a woman working in metal, a traditionally male medium of expression in Africa. Masquerade in Africa is an art of transformation, harnessing the powers of the natural and spirit worlds for the benefit of humankind, so Sokari’s innovative re-interpretation of a long-standing tradition would seem entirely appropriate.

Sokari was born in 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria, the cultural capital of the Kalabari people who live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta. She moved to Britain as a child and now lives and works near the Elephant and Castle in London. “My work is about what’s going on in London” she says, though part of that is a celebration of her own Kalabari culture, a theme which occurs in different ways in her work. “I live the reality of being both Nigerian and British, but feeling outside both cultures”.

The UK’s largest Nigerian population is found in the capital, in Lambeth and Southwark, but in particular, Peckham. Census figures show Peckham – one of the most diverse areas of the country – with the most Nigerian-born people in Britain.

Sokari’s version of an Otobo masquerader is displayed in the African Galleries next to three examples of carved wooden Otobo masks, one of which (collected by Sokari herself) was made in the late twentieth century, over a century after the other two, though stylistically they are almost identical.

However, avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century would almost certainly have assumed these masks to be examples of spontaneous creativity, unfettered by the artistic conventions of Western tradition, rather than representing slowly changing, highly conservative artistic traditions – the very things European artists were trying to escape.

The African Galleries – with the help of artists such as Sokari – seek to overturn this approach, showing the strength and diversity of art from across the continent from the earliest times to the best of contemporary art from Africa.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 4 October 2012.

The Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure is on display in Room 25: Africa

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