I almost miss the workshop on a busy coastal road in the Ghanaian capital. The faded sign reading Kane Kwei Coffins in block letters sits prominently outside a small structure set between a three-story supermarket and a few ramshackle buildings. Children run around coffins of all shapes and colors: a chili pepper, a cat, a scorpion.
The finished coffins are smooth to the touch, painted in vibrant shades that shine despite the seasonal Harmattan dust coating every surface. Inside the workshop, a group of young apprentices saw grooves into a block of wood that will become a coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod. Founded in the 1950s by Seth Kane Kwei, this is thought to be the oldest coffin shop specializing in abebuu adekai: proverb boxes.
In the last 50 years, these fantasy coffins have become one of Ghana’s most unique cultural exports. The curious tradition of burying people in coffins shaped like everything from lobsters to busty women is primarily practiced in Accra and has spawned over 10 workshops in the capital city. Almost all of these are owned by former apprentices of Kane Kwei, who died in 1992.
Today, six apprentices work at the original workshop alongside Kane Kwei’s son Cedi Anang and grandson Eric Adjetey Anang. The shop produces up to 20 coffins each month. Each year, Kane Kwei ships up to 100 coffins to Ghanaians living abroad, as well as art lovers everywhere from Denmark to Russia.
The coffin shop in Accra. Photo: Theophilus Mensah
The coffins intended for burial are made from a soft wood and cost about $700. The ones considered works of art and bound for homes and galleries, are made from mahogany. Those can sell for as much as $3,000. In 2014, a coffin in the shape of a Porsche made by Kane Kwei’s nephew and former assistant Paa Joe set a record for abebuu adekai at London auction house Bonhams when it sold for $9,200.
“When I started working, people used to call me a coffin maker or a carpenter,” says Anang. “Over the years, I’ve become more actively engaged in the design process from start to finish. I think that’s what really helped me transcend just being a carpenter to being a true artist with a vision.”
Despite recent success, the original workshop is under threat. With land prices in the city going up the property is suddenly very valuable, and some of the family want to cash in. Anang is determined to keep it open.