The Art Underground: Fantasy Coffins of Ghana

The Art Underground: Fantasy Coffins of Ghana

July 26, 2026 12:00 am
March 31, 2027 12:00 am
Museum of International Folk Art

The origins of Ghanaian fantasy coffins—called abebuu adekai, or “receptacles of proverbs” in Ga—lay in the first half of the twentieth century with figurative palanquins (sedan chairs) used to transport Ghanaian chiefs during traditional festivals. As the story goes, Seth Kane Kwei built a palanquin in the shape of a cacao pod for a Ga chief. However, before the palanquin could be used, the chief died. Instead of letting the palanquin go to waste, the chief’s family decided to bury him in it. Shortly after, Kane Kwei’s grandmother passed away. Since she had always dreamed of flying in an airplane, her grandson chose to make her coffin in the shape of an airplane so her spirit could fly away. Many people saw both coffins in their funerary processions through Accra. Soon, figurative coffins became wildly popular. Kane Kwei began to produce numerous coffins in myriad forms—including chili peppers, automobiles, farm implements, cell phones, soda bottles, bibles, lions, and eagles, to list a few.

In Ga cosmology, the deceased must make a voyage to the world beyond, and fantasy coffins aid in that transition to the afterlife by providing a form of stylish transportation. They are an important way for families to remember and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. Through dialogue and negotiation, the coffin maker and clients, usually the children of the deceased, reach an agreement on the coffin design that matches the status, clan, occupation, and spirit of the departed.

Kane Kwei trained many master craftsmen capable of developing and perpetuating the funerary tradition. He continued to make figurative coffins and train others at his workshop until his death in 1992. Today, Kane Kwei’s grandson, Eric Adjetey-Anang, carries on the carpenter’s legacy, as Kane Kwei’s sons, Sowah and Cedi, did before him. Today, there are at least a dozen coffin-making workshops in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana, many of whom trained under Kane Kwei or one of his apprentices.

Fantasy coffins attracted global attention starting in the 1970s. Galleries, museums, and private collectors commissioned coffins from Ghanaian makers, fueling the desire for these handcrafted objects in the international art market. In 1989, fantasy coffins were displayed in Paris in a landmark exhibition called Magiciens de la Terre, translating to “Magicians of the Earth,” at the Centre Georges Pompidou, exposing the artform to millions of museumgoers.

The Art Underground: Fantasy Coffins of Ghana is guest curated by Mark Sloan with Eric Adjetey-Anang. It is scheduled to open in July 2026.