A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture Eric Adjetey Anang was giving at AC+D. I’ve been mulling it over in the time since. Mr. Anang was a friendly, articulate man, and I was inspired by the story of how he took his grandfather’s design coffin-building business and slowly began making it into a kind of art empire. He told us that his grandfather, Kane Kwei, began the business rather by accident.
He crafted a coffin in the shape of a plane for a family member who had always wanted to travel but had never been able to do so. This desire for travel was also one of Anang’s motivations to expand the business. The story tied up nicely, as if with a bow, and that roused my skepticism. But we must market ourselves, and he is doing “well” as an artist, though I feel he charges too little for his work. He has exhibited in Belgium, Spain, Russia, Italy, and across the US, among other places, but I can’t help but feel that he is ultimately being exploited.
Throughout his lecture, he emphasized that the coffins built for exhibitions were not necessarily the kind of coffins that Ghanaians would be buried in. Exhibition coffins included coffins shaped as Coke, beer, and liquor bottles, among other things. I looked at these and thought the words “novelty death.” I felt uncomfortable looking at them. I wondered if viewers would think that the people of Ghana are in the habit of trivializing death. From Anang’s lecture, it was clear that the coffins built specifically for Ghanaians had the exact opposite intent, that they were meant to honor the lives of the dead. This coffin-building tradition is hardly cavalier or irreverant–it is steeped in ritual and decorum. Ordinary people, for instance, cannot be buried in coffins shaped like eagles because those coffins are reserved for chiefs and people of high stature within the community–Anang explained that he had once refused to build such a casket for an infamous person for fear that the community would literally tear it apart. Despite the cultural richness surrounding authentic Ghanaian design coffins, Anang seemed to feel pressure to make irreverent coffins for the gallery space, and I wince at the misrepresentation of the culture, alluded to earlier, that these exhibition-only coffins might encourage.
From my research, I get the sense that museum curators and Western individuals have commissioned these exhibition-only coffins, but why? Is it cute to appropriate a serious tradition like this for a laugh? Does the Western art establishment have no taste for art without irony? Must everything be cynical, a comment upon itself, polished to a high sheen, and vacant, without societal use-value? Has art been completely hobbled by its convergence with advertising, the acknowledgement of art as nothing more than marketable gimmick–must this be made increasingly explicit? Are Anang’s exhibition-only pieces meant to bring up this conversation? I can see the Coke-bottle-coffin as an encapsulation of the fear that an art which broadcasts itself as classable with the ephemera of our throw-away culture cannot survive–its death is in fact embedded within it. I don’t know, however, that this is Anang’s intent; it seems that his skill is being harnessed to broadcast messages that he does not necessarily endorse. I felt very sickened to find out that one of the least reverent caskets was commissioned on behalf of Karl Pilkington of An Idiot Abroad (it was shaped as a Twix bar). That An Idiot Abroad may or may not be a sort of exploitation in itself (I imagine it’s completely staged, but I don’t know for sure.) only adds to my frustration. I think what Anang is doing in Ghana should be respected. His work is beautiful, a celebration of life–the opposite of cynical.