Regula Tschumi on Ghanaian Coffins

Regula Tschumi on Ghanaian Coffins

How did you initially get interested in Ghana and its culture?

In 1999 I spent a week in Accra,the capital of Ghana, in order to see an exhibition of contemporary African art from West- and South Africa. While there, I also visited for the first time the workshops of a number of coffin makers and became fascinated by their figurative coffins. Back home in Switzerland, I started to look for catalogues or articles that might tell me more about these artefacts. Much had been written about them, but it soon became apparent that most authors had drawn on the same source: an illustrated volume by the photojournalist Thierry Secretan, first published in 1994. Moreover, the coffins were generally viewed in the same terms as Western art: there existed no scholarly works or empirical studies that examined their origin, function and social context from an emic perspective. That aroused my curiosity.

Thierry Secretan: Il fait sombre. Va-t-en, Hazan 1994.
Thierry Secretan: Il fait sombre. Va-t-en, Hazan 1994.

How did you first begin taking photographs?

When I went back to Ghana in 2002 and started my research and fieldwork about the figurative coffins, I decided to buy a digital camera to document my work. In those times I had no ambitions to become a photographer and to make good photographs, I just needed a camera to record some events. But very soon I had great pleasure using a digital camera and with a bit experience my work started also to improve. But all those first years I had been an autodidact photographer with no training. Only after finishing my PhD I attended several photo workshops which helped me a lot to improve my photography.

In your writings, you explain that there were certain mysteries about the origins of Ga fantasy coffins. Could you tell us a little more about your journey to find the answers?

In my first book published in 2008 (2006) I described how most theories advanced in connection with the figurative coffins of the Ga, including some proposed by Thierry Secretan in his much-cited book of 1995, did not square with my observations in the field. To briefly recapitulate the salient points of The Buried Treasures of the Ga, I established that the coffins, which had featured prominently on the international art market since the 1980s, were not invented by Kane Kwei of Teshie, as had been assumed in the Western art world. Neither did they constitute a new art form but had been developed from the figurative palanquin. Nor, pace Secretan, was the use of representational palanquins and coffins restricted to Teshie and its environs: they were clearly employed in other towns as well, and long before Kane Kwei’s time.

Regula Tschumi: The buried treasures of the Ga. Coffin art in Ghana, Edition Till Schaap 2014 (2008). Originally published in German in 2006.

During my research in Ghana from 2002 until 06, when I focused on the figurative coffins, I came across no written sources relating to the figurative palanquins among the Ga and I found only one photograph, showing an example from Accra. Many questions concerning these unusual objects therefore remained to be answered, and this prompted me to study the palanquins separately and make them from 2007 until 2013 the subject of a PhD thesis with the main questions: What prompted the Ga to start using figurative palanquins at some indeterminate time in the nineteenth or twentieth century? Were chiefs really buried in their palanquins, as many Ga had been telling me? And, if so, why were they interred in this way rather than in coffins? Why did the palanquins disappear from public view at some point, and I had never seen a figurative palanquin? How did the Ga come to develop palanquins in the shape of their family symbols, then similarcoffins and, finally, independent figurative coffins? My PhD research addressed all these questions, sometimes from the outset, sometimes only during my studies. Answers to most of them were forthcoming and they were published in my second book “Concealed Art. The figurative palanquins and coffins of Ghana” (2014).

Have there been any other (Ghanian or non-Ghanian) photographers who photographed Ghanian funeral rights at any other time in history.

When I began to photograph the Ga funerals, Thierry Secretan had been the only photo journalist who had been photographing funerals and had published his images in his book “Going into darkness: Fantastic Coffins from Ghana”, 1995, Thames and Hudson, London [French original 1994]. But there were and are of course Ghanaian photographers who document the funerals. But they are mainly there to photograph the mourners, not the ceremonies around the coffin, and they are paid by the families for their job, so their work is very different from what I do.

Tell us more about your process of photographing the Ga: their rituals, art-marking and art forms?

The Ga, differently from other ethnic groups outside the Greater Accra Region, are not photo friendly, and foreigners with cameras are not welcome. I am always very careful when I photograph among the Ga, especially in public places. Especially difficult it becomes when I photograph traditional people. It took me a long time to become familiar with their attitude and to learn how it is best to approach them when I want to photograph some rituals or festivals. But know, after so many years I am going to Ghana, I know many chiefs and priests personally and they even invite me for their ceremonies and their very complex funerals where foreigner normally can’t go. But I am always aware that the traditional Ga are a very closed society and it as a big privilege for me when they let me photograph. But photographing christian funerals and festivals has never been a problem for me. I just need to contact the family to explain what I do and to ask for permit, and this is most time not a problem.

Art making

I observed that among the Ga there are two different visual worlds, which can be assigned to two different social groups: one is oriented towards the foreign arts, especially the arts of the Akan but also those of Europeans; the other, by contrast, rejects everything it regards as foreign and cultivates what it believes to be the “indigenous” artistic forms handed down from their ancestors.

The arts adopted from the Akan, which primarily concern regalia and military insignia, are used by the secular rulers and their dignitaries. Their offices are, after all, connected with the military system  the Ga adopted from the Akan. The court arts of the Akan are focused on status and are largely immanent. Correspondingly, they are also used by the secular chiefs among them. ‘Indigenous’ art, by contrast, is found among the traditional priests: the wulɔmεi and wɔŋtsεmεi. They see themselves as guardians of the traditions handed down from their ancestors and for that reason orient themselves towards what they regard as their own forms of artistic expression. Their aesthetic is minimalist and hence scarcely noticeable in everyday life.Their arts are mainly performative and expressed in the context of certain rituals and festivals. These arts are not concerned with status and are intended for public view only in a very limited sense. Instead, they are directed at transcendental forces with which the priest want to establish contact. The insignia of secular chiefs are also closely connected with supernatural powers and are integrated into both politics and traditional forms of rule. But whereas insignia serve, alongside their spiritual function, to demonstrate the secular power of the rulers, the performative arts of the priests are primarily intended to contact the gods or to seek their favour. Pleasing the public is of secondary importance only. Thus the forms of artistic expression of the Ga are based on two antithetical attitudes that are associated with different actions and have different significance.

Two different art forms

Among the Ga priests there are religious taboos that forbids them to use certain types of art used in other societies in West Africa. That is why they don’t use any wooden sculptures and mask for their performances and for their shrines. They also don’t use paintings and photographs in the religious context. Differently from the Akans they also don’t use gold, and the priests are dressed very mostly, they go barefoot, dressed in white, color is only for special occasions. But in their performances they use body paintings, they dance, drum and sing, wear special jewelry and dress up with elaborated hairstyles.

The secular arts used by the Ga chiefs and kings were adopted from outside, mainly from the Akans who use them in the royal context: gold, color, special chief insignia like state umbrellas, linguist sticks, golden chief sandals, colorful Kente and palanquins is very important in the secular arts of the Ga.

What kind of response did you receive from the Ga when photographing their burial rituals? Did you feel that your identity as a European woman mattered in any way?

In Ghana photography is a male domain, I have never seen camera women at any event, and especially I never met a woman shooting a funeral. Obviously, I stand out with what I do, not only because I am a woman holding a camera, but also because I am a white. I guess that people are surprised when they see me at funerals, but Ghanaians are very polite, they won’t let me feel it when they are surprised, and I don’t know what they say about me! But I have never been stopped or disturbed when I photographed at a funeral. The mourners normally know who I am and that I have a permit to photograph. Sometimes families are even proud when I attend their rituals, they see it as an honor that a foreigner comes to attend their burial.

Regula Tschumi greeting the family at a funeral she was photographing, 2018
Regula Tschumi greeting the family at a funeral she was photographing, 2018.

Since these photographs formed part of an anthropological research project, do you consider yourself to be a documentary photographer or an artistic photographer?

My photographs of funeral rituals are surely documentary work and I developed my photography as an autodidact. But since 2014 I attended several workshops with Ernesto Bazan, Nikos Economopoulos and Maciej Dakowitcz who helped me a lot to develop my work. I try to become a more visual photographer, but the work about the funerals will surely continue in a mainly documentary style.

What do you think that anthropology and anthropological forms of knowledge might add to the contemporary art world?

I am not sure if anthropology or any other background knowledge makes you a better photographer and artist. But for my case I believe that my photographs are better when I am close and familiar with the people I photograph. I also try to make images that are not only aesthetic but have also content. This attitude is surely connected with my anthropological background.

What are some of the most profound lessons or insights you might have gained from studying and photographing the Ga’s approach and attitude to death?

The Ghanaian attitude to death is completely different from ours. Ghanaian focus on life, not on death. At funerals they celebrate the good times they had with the deceased; they call funerals even “Celebration of Life”.  That is why the undertakers like the now famous Nana Otafritsa has such a great success with his coffin dancers: He wants the mourners to dance and celebrate with him when he makes his funeral performances. For the Ga, at least for the traditional believers, death is not the end, but just another transition in life. For them, death as part of an eternal life cycle where the deceased becomes an ancestor and later, he or she will be reborn in his family.

In your opinion, how does one honour art and photography made about, or in, Africa when showing it in European contexts?

I believe that we honor contemporary African art when showing it in a European context. Although good art can be appreciated with no explanation and any interpretation is good, but I believe that we honor the African artists more, when there is somebody who knows about the intention behind the art works or know the cultural background. Many in Europe don’t know anything about Africa, and when they visit an exhibition with contemporary African arts they need some information. Only then the works become also more exciting; the cultural background and the intention of the artist is important. When last year we had a fantastic show of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui in Bern and I realized how I was looking with differently at El’s work because I knew from where he is coming.  My interpretations were also often different from those of the Western art historians. This kind of insider knowledge is important and when showing Contemporary African art outside the continent we should be aware of it.

In your publications, you describe the way in which utility objects such as these coffins are transformed into aesthetic/artistic objects by the West. Could you tell us a little more about this metamorphosis?

In the first half of the 20th century, under pressure from the British colonial rulers, the Ga began to bury their chiefs no more in their houses and palaces but at the cemeteries. From this time they needed coffins to carry the bodies to the cemetery. Where and when the Ga began to use figurative coffins, however, remains unknown, there are no oral or written sources. But we have indications that the Ga began to use figurative coffins between 1930 until before independence in 1957. In those years certain chiefs in Accra begam to use figurative palanquins in the form of their clan symbols when they were appointed. Such palanquins were used by them, among other things, to represent their family identity and for their spiritual protection.

Since the enstoolment and the burial rites of traditional chiefs are complementary in the Ga society, a chief who sat in a figurative palanquin when he was enstooled had to leave the office assigned to him in the same way as he had assumed it: in a palanquin. But as palanquins were and still are important royal insignia which are made of hard wood, they could never be buried with their owner, but kept in the palace after the chief’s death. But the Ga made a copy of the palanquins and used the copy for the chief’s burial. The original palanquin they kept in the palace and used it to keep a spiritual contact with the deceased.

After Ghana’s independence 1957, when the first morgues were set up in the country, especially the funerals of the “ordinary” Ga began to change significantly. Using the morgues, they now had enough time to organize large funeral celebrations that were previously reserved only for their traditional chiefs. In those years after independence the Christians began to use not only ordinary, but also figurative coffins, but they had to adapt their symbolism. They were not allowed to use the same symbols as their chiefs and they had to obey their Christian regulations as well. In the 1960s, the pioneer coffin carpenters Ataa Oko Addo (1918-2012) from La and Kane Kwei (1930-1990) from Teshie created some of the first figurative coffins for Christian burials. Since then these coffins have become very popular even outside the Greater Accra Region. Several artists have continued the work of those first two masters. They have perfected their manufacturing techniques and up to the present they keep creating new coffin models, which are mostly associated with modern everyday objects.

Ataa Oko Addo (1918-2012)
Ataa Oko Addo (1918-2012) with his wife behind a battleship coffin, 1957.

In these last years the figurative coffins have gone through many transformations. Starting as copies of the figurative palanquins, they became soon figurative coffins also for chiefs who had not owned a palanquin. From there they were taken over for Christian burials, and now for a good 30 years, they are also exported to Western Art galleries and museums where they are seen as art works. By moving from one social group to another these coffins transformed themselves not only in their appearance, but also in their meaning and significance. In the traditional burials of chiefs and priests they had and still have a religious significance and should help the deceased to transform into a powerful ancestor. In the Christian rituals, they have largely detached themselves from any religious meaning. They have advanced to mainly aesthetic objects which serve to surprise and please the mourners. Since the Western Art market discovered in the 1980s by chance the figurative coffins, but not the figurative palanquins, these coffins also transformed into durable art objects.

Ironically, the art market, which places the greatest possible value on exhibiting originals, had not only erroneously attributed the invention of the figurative coffins, a supposedly new art form, to a single artist. It had also, through lack of knowledge, preferred the coffins to the actual original artefact – the figurative palanquins.

What is the state of the current Ghanian art world?

Ghana is still not a hotspot for contemporary art, but in the last years new exhibition spaces came up and the art academy KNUST in Kumasi has not only produced some very good artists but has also organized various great exhibitions in Accra and Kumasi. There are also new art spaces like the Nubuk Foundation, the Artist Alliance Gallery, and the Galerie 1957, all of them show regularly well curated exhibitions.

The writer and film maker Nana Oforyiatta Ayim has recently also made exhibitions and art events as well as the concept artist Ibrahim Mahama who even built his own museum in Tamale where he gives young artists in the north an opportunity for workshops and exhibitions. And the young coffin artist Kudjoe Affutu has also established a great art space in the Central Region.

Since several years there is also the Chale Wote festival, an annual street and graffiti art event in Accra attracting a local as well as international audience. Many young artists get a great opportunity to exhibit their work at this festival.

Do you have any favourite Ghanian artists or photographers?

As photographers I like very much the old street and studio photography of James Barnor and among the young generation Eric Gyamfi, but there are of course many other young and talented photographers in the country. Among the still living Ghanaian artists El Anatsui, Atta Kwami and Ibrahim Mahama are my favorites. And of course I love the work of Ataa Oko (1919-2012), who was a pioneer for the Ghanaian coffin art and who became in his old age a great graphic artist and story teller.

A work by Ibrahim Mahama at the Kepinsky Hotel, Accra.
A work by Ibrahim Mahama at the Kepinsky Hotel, Accra.

What are some of your projects or exhibitions that are in your future?

I just have finished my book project about Ataa Oko and I am presently preparing some talks and presentations of this book. For next year in spring, I have an exhibition project in a museum with Ataa Oko’s work but the dates have still not yet been determined. But apart from this I am always open to whatever come to me, it can be an exhibition, a book or catalog project, a presentation, I know that there is always something unexpected coming. And I still hope that next year I will finally be able to go back to Ghana again and I continue my long-term photo projects about the funerals, religious rituals and festivals of the Ga.

Regula Tschumi

Regula Tschumi is a freelance scholar, art mediator and photographer based in Berne, Switzerland. She worked until 2002 for the Swiss national airline Swissair. From 1996 to 2003, while still working at the airline, she studied social anthropology, art history and religious studies in Berne.

In 2013 she received a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Basel with her research about the figurative palanquins and coffins in Ghana. In connection with her studies, she spent six months in Zanzibar (East Africa) and more than five years doing field work in Ghana (West Africa). Regula Tschumi has published a number of articles and photographs in exhibition catalogues and scholarly journals, as well as two books about the figurative coffins and palanquins of the Ga in Ghana.