Joseph Ashong fondly known as Paa Joe is considered one of the most important Ghanaian fantasy coffin artists of his generation. Born in 1947 in the Akwapim region, Greater Accra Region in Ghana, he belongs to the Ga-Adangbe people. At 15, Paa Joe began a ten-year apprenticeship with his uncle, Kane Kwei in Teshie. In 1976, he started his own business in Nungua and has trained many young artists like Daniel Mensah, Eric Kpakpo and Kudjoe Affutu, who have all become successful.
Paa Joe has taken part in several major art exhibitions in Europe, Japan and the United States and his fantasy coffins feature in many prestigious collections worldwide, including the British Museum in London. In 2007, Paa Joe moved his workshop from Nungua to Pobiman (Greater Accra) and continues to work with his two sons Jacob and Isaac. In this interview with Omenka, Jacob speaks on behalf of his father about their inspiration, belief in the afterlife and the exhibition titled Akԑ Yaaa Heko, to mark Paa Joe’s 70th birthday anniversary.
Tell me a little bit about Paa Joe’s background and how he started making coffins.
Paa Joe was born in 1947 in Akuapem in the eastern part of Ghana. When he was 16 years old, his father took him to his uncle, Kane Kwei at Teshie. His uncle is his mother’s cousin, and Paa Joe would serve an apprenticeship under him as a coffin maker between 1960 and 1972. From there, he left for Elmina to learn how to carve in a boat yard. In 1976, he returned to Accra where he graduated as a master coffin maker and in 1977, opened his workshop.
Besides their aesthetic purposes, are the dead factually buried in his coffins?
Yes, in Ghana the dead are buried in such coffins because we believe in the afterlife. A coffin is made based on what a person did while alive so that he or she can continue with it in the afterlife. For example, a journalist could be buried in a microphone or a camera coffin, a businessman in a Mercedes Benz, a teacher in a pen or a book while chiefs are buried in lions, with an eagle, a stool and their symbol.
How widespread is this belief in modern Ghana where the majority practice Christianity?
This is a good question. As I said earlier, most Ghanaians are buried in fantasy coffins because they believe life still continues. Some Christians are even buried in a Bible, church building or in a pulpit.
Please tell us about Paa Joe’s techniques and working methods, the time it takes to complete a piece and how the inspiration for each design comes, for example, the coffin shaped as an octopus.
From day one, Paa Joe has not used machines in making these coffins, he only uses hand tools like the wooden plane, hammer, pincers and handsaw. When someone dies and the family commissions a coffin, they tell us what the deceased did while alive, and so the inspiration comes. For instance, the inspiration to make a gun or sword comes when we learn the deceased was a warrior.
Please tell us about the exhibition. How did your collaboration with Elizabeth Sutherland come about, in what way are your works complementary, what were you trying to achieve especially with the performance, and why Gallery 1957?
I met Elisabeth Sutherland on Facebook and asked how we could work together. Then she was in Switzerland and replied, ‘when I return to Ghana, I’ll make sure I come to the workshop so that we can plan.’
When she came to the workshop, we realised that we both have the sea in common as she is Fanti and we are Ga. We then decided to do something common to our tribes by ensuring all the pieces in the exhibition are from the sea; the canoe, ship, fish, octopus, cone and shell. Sutherland and I did this to preserve our culture and heritage. We chose Gallery 1957 because Marwan Zakhem has a great interest in promoting African or local artists. We decided to contact him to see how best he can collaborate with us on a successful exhibition.
Jacob, you work with your father in creating these world-renowned coffins. How popular is the apprenticeship system in Ghana today?
In this generation, it is very difficult for people to apprentice. They are mostly more interested in quick money or in academics than learning a trade. Since we relocated almost ten years ago, no one has come to learn our trade. Today, children find it difficult to learn from any of their parents and it is becoming very difficult for them, not having something to do with their hands.