His creations are highly intricate and take months of intensive work to produce, yet when they are finished they are buried six feet in the ground, never to be seen again.
Meet Paa Joe: the 68-year-old Ghanaian master craftsman and grandfather of the ‘fantasy coffin’ trade. For almost 50 years, Paa Joe – whose real name is Joseph Ashong – has been burying people in anything from lions, aeroplanes, tanks and even Coca-Cola bottles – whatever the link to the deceased, the Ghanaian coffin maker will hand-craft it.
But times have not been kind to the man who has produced thousands of coffins over the decades and who has had two US presidents stop by his workshop.
Since 2008 Paa Joe’s business has been in decline and recently he was forced to move from his central workshop in the country’s capital, Accra. Instead, he has been forced to work from a dusty roadside shack with little passing trade and few visits from tourists.
Now, along with his son Jacob, the world-renowned craftsman will attempt to turn his business around by travelling to the UK for the first time and becoming the subject of a new British documentary.
Encouraged by his mother to become a coffin maker, Ashong has been learning his craft – a strong tradition in Ghana - since he was 16-years-old, taking his cue from his mentor and the founder of the craft, Kane Kwei. The fantasy coffin trade has been a strong tradition in the Ga community for several decades, linking back to pre-colonial West African sculpture but also recalling the pomp of Egyptian royal funerals.
Ashong’s mother died in 2012 aged 107, and the documentary Paa Joe and the Lion due for release in spring next year, captures Ashong fashioning her wooden coffin and documents her funeral. His creations often represent the lives of people for whom they are made – a Coca-Cola bottle for a street vendor, or a lion for the head of the family, with the works blurring the lines between art and craft. During a Ga funeral, coffins travel around villages in a bid to confuse the spirit so it cannot return and haunt its friends and relatives.
In 1989, former US president Jimmy Carter visited his workshop and bought two coffins, and in 1998 Bill Clinton also paid him a visit. It is claimed in 2009, Barack Obama wanted to also pay him a visit, but his officials were unable to locate him. His work is held in museum collections around the world, including the British museum.
Now, based in the UK for a short residency this month, Paa Joe will carve a lion coffin at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire with a hope to gaining enough recognition - and cash - to be able to buy himself back in to the funereal trade in Accra.
Paa Joe will celebrate the finale on 1 June 2013 by previewing the lion’s coffin at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.