By Olivia Marple, Contributing Writer
Eric Adjetey Anang knows transporting wood from the countryside into Teshie, his coastal hometown in southern Ghana, is illegal. He understands that if the police catch him, he will probably be arrested and will have to be locked up in a cell overnight. But he does so anyway out of necessity. Wood is what supports his fantasy coffin making business and he cannot do without it. Today, Anang is unlucky, and a few police officers pull him over in his truck.
“You are carrying this wood illegally,” they said, pointing to his stash of cut wood panels.
Anang, however, does not give in to arrest so easily. He quickly begins to explain that he works at Ghana Coffin, the business his grandfather created, and he needs this wood to build his famous fantasy coffins. He jumps back into the cab of the truck and pulls out his laptop in order to show them pictures of the coffins he and his apprentices have made in the shape of a fish, a mother hen and even a soft drink can.
“You know,” Anang said to the unconvinced officers, “you might need one of these someday.”
“What?” one of the officers yells back in disbelief. “Are you saying that I’m going to die?”
Despite Anang’s playful teasing of the officers, after they look through the troves of photos of the coffins Anang has made, they let him go.
Anang makes these fantasy coffins for anyone from his next-door neighbor in Ghana to the owners of a museum halfway around the world. His work making and selling these coffins has taken him all over the globe, and this past week he has been in Durham, constructing a coffin in the shape of a lobster with Professor Leah Woods, who teaches woodworking at the University of New Hampshire and other helpers. The lobster they have created will be presented to the public on Friday, Sept. 26 at the UNH Woodshop Service Building and then donated to the Seacoast African American Cultural Center in Portsmouth.
This stop in Durham will cap off a whirlwind tour of the U.S. (his second time in the country) and in each state in which he has stopped, he has constructed with woodworking students and professionals a coffin coinciding with a specific product or animal known to the region: in Oregon it was a tuna fish, in Iowa an ear of corn, a badger for Wisconsin and a lobster for New Hampshire.
While Anang enjoys working with students from other countries to make these art pieces, Ghana Coffin originally created coffins for more practical purposes; in other words, to house the remains of the deceased. Therefore, Anang spends much of his time back in his workshop in Teshie, where he constructs coffins for Ghanaians and citizens of other neighboring African countries; and the shapes illustrate the personality, the profession or even the spirit of the deceased.
“To me, [coffin making] is a very important profession,” Anang said, while taking a break from his work on the lobster this past Sunday. “A lot of Ghanaians don’t have a good respect for it because you are working with death. But to me it is a great way of honoring someone who has played a vital role in life.”
While explaining his thoughts on this profession, Anang would take quick side-glances at his lobster-in-progress, like a mom keeping tabs on her child on the playground. His helpers continued to work on cutting and forming wooden panels to the lobster base which, in its current state looked like a child’s toboggan.
Every once in a while Anang would mutter a “sorry,” and would leap over to the lobster’s wooden endoskeleton to give a helper instructions on what to do next. When he was in motion like this, wood dust fell from his hands and clothes like a sprinkling of powdered sugar.
He gave his directions and used his pointer finger to illustrate how the pieces would fit together as if solving a puzzle in his head. Anang does not work from a plan, and when he looked upon his piece of work in this primitive stage, it seemed as though he was picturing the final outcome superimposed upon its bare bones.
The idea that Anang does not rely on drawings when he works surprised Sierra D’Amours, an art student at UNH, who attended a lecture Anang gave at the Paul Creative Arts Center on Monday, Sept. 22.
“He just starts building however he thinks will work best,” D’Amours said. “Also, the style of woodworking he uses is so simple, and yet he makes such complicated and organic forms. So impressive.”
Anang, the third generation of his family to take on this business, learned these skills from his father, Cedi Anang Kwei and grandfather, Seth Kane Kwei. Ghana Coffin was created in the late 1940s by Anang’s grandfather, who was asked to build a cocoa pod coffin for a local chief. Then Kwei decided to build a coffin for his recently deceased grandmother in the shape of an airplane as she had lived next to an airport and had always wished to fly in one but had never gotten the chance in life.
Other people in Teshie then began to ask for fantasy coffins when they realized that Kwei would make these special shapes for ordinary community members and not just a chief or leader of the village.
After Kwei died in 1992, Anang’s father and uncle took over the shop and consequently business went into a decline.
Then, soon after the death of his uncle, Anang had to decide between going to university and entering into his family business.
“At that point my dad did not like the idea [of me not going to university] because building coffins is uneducated employment,” Anang said.
Also, many of his friends decided to go to university in order to study traditional professions like medicine and law. However, Anang knew that getting a university degree would not necessarily get him a job in Ghana in the future, so he ultimately decided to not “follow the crowd” and started working straight away in his grandfather’s workshop.
At first, his friends taunted him for his decision.
“People were calling me names like ‘coffin maker,’” Anang said, “but that was when I was young. Now I don’t see anything wrong with someone calling me that because it’s my profession.”
After Anang started working at Ghana Coffin, the business began to flourish again, as Anang delivered the coffins on time and would often go out of his way to accompany them to their destination. Then Anang began traveling abroad in order to check that coffins, which had already been sold to foreign museums, had been properly attributed to his grandfather.
In 2009, he built a coffin in the shape of a Spanish soft drink called Aquarius, and was featured in a commercial for the drink which aired in Spain that year, marking the beginning of his international success.
He has traveled to such countries as Spain, South Korea, Italy, Denmark, France and Russia, in addition to his trips to the U.S. On these trips he sells his coffins to museums and private buyers and works with students.
Woods believes that Anang’s personality has fueled this international recognition.
“He works so hard,” Woods said. “He’s taken on so much responsibility in terms of carrying on the tradition, hiring apprentices and thinking about marketing his business. He’s very personable, easygoing and recognizes that people are really interested in what he’s doing, but he also seems interested in meeting other people and seeing what [they] are doing.”
One instance in which Anang was leery about traveling abroad was when a private buyer from Russia called him.
The buyer told Anang over the phone, “I want all the coffins.”
Startled by this blunt request, Anang replied, “I don’t have all the coffins.”
In the end, Anang agreed he would make the man seven coffins, and Anang knew he would have to accompany these art pieces to the buyer. However, he did stop to ask himself, “Am I ready to go to Russia?”
Anang also ended up constructing a coffin in the shape of a Vodka bottle for a museum in Russia, which was intentionally ironic and created to make people aware of the high rates of death from alcoholism in the country.
“I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I do something in the form of education?’” Anang said.
Indeed, this bottle was his form of educating the Russian public.
In fact, educating the Durham community was just what Woods was hoping for when she invited Anang to campus for this week.
She especially wanted students at UNH who have not done much traveling to see a breakdown in cultural differences between countries through Anang’s coffins.
“I think that there are a lot of people in the U.S. that think of wakes and funerals in a celebratory fashion,” Woods said, and she believes this connects to Anang’s own work, which makes coffins “a celebratory object” and “a reverence for ancestors.”
Bryanna Roberts, a student who visited the UNH Woodshop with her American literature class while Anang was working, said that she could also see this similarity between cultures, but she was especially struck by the uniqueness of Ghana Coffin’s enterprise.
“I think [the fantasy coffin making] is a really cool idea just because it puts a spin on the afterlife and it makes it so people can celebrate life in a creative way,” Roberts said. “I like how they make it geared towards the personality of the person that’s passing, and I can’t imagine burying them, but I think it makes you more at ease to know that they’re going away in something they enjoyed in life.”
Anang hopes to inspire and educate more students when he goes back home to Ghana.
He has just bought land on which he wants to build a second workshop.
He plans for this workshop to be a site where he can bring together “students from all parts of the world and especially from Ghana to share with them the art I’m doing.”
Although he does say he prefers to make the coffins as art pieces and work with students, this does not detract from how seriously he takes his utilitarian coffin making.
For example, at his talk on Monday he showed the crowd photos of coffins in the shape of a Twix bar and a beer bottle. While the audience chuckled at these, Anang was quick to point out, “No family would bury their dead in a beer bottle in Ghana.”
His comment was meant to show that even though some of the shapes he creates are humorous and whimsical, he makes a clear distinction between those made for fun and those made for an actual use, out of solemnity and respect for the deceased and their families.
Anang put it like this: “The ego to us is a symbol of strength, so [the coffin] represents what [the person] was and the strength [the person] has within the community.”
Indeed, he believes these coffins are anything but trivial, and while he introduces himself as a fantasy coffin maker, Anang insists, “For the families of the deceased, these coffins are never fantasy.”