Eric Adjitey Anang and Jean Michel Audry were no ordinary tourists to Kenya (although it could be viewed as exceptional to see a Ghanaian and a Frenchman as travelling companions).
As invited guests of Kenya Cultural Centre director Aghan Odero, the three had met recently at a cultural festival in Denmark where Aghan was storytelling and Eric constructing his world acclaimed Ghanaian designer coffins and displaying them for all to see: rectangular boxes topped with either a fish, bird, reindeer, spider or Mercedez Benz!
(The Danes had commissioned him to make 24 coffins, half reflecting Ghanaian culture, half reflecting Danish culture.)
‘We spent an evening together and that’s when Aghan invited us to Kenya,” said Jean-Michel, a former French Cultural Centre director, once in Nigeria, once in Grenada.
Speaking to Business Daily early this month, Jean Michel explained, “We also came to lay the groundwork for Eric’s re turn to Kenya where he hopes to run workshops for young artists living in Kibera and also to exhibit his coffins.”
Jean Michel had known Eric’s grandfather, the master Ghanaian coffin maker, Ernest Anang Kwei in Accra long before Eric was born; so when Kwei’s grandson expressed a passionate interest in keeping his elder’s coffin art alive, the French diplomat chose to assist him however he could.
“I was only eight when my grandfather died but I had been spending time at his workshop watching his apprentices and awaiting the day when i could become a master coffin maker myself,” said Eric, 32, who began managing the family workshop while still in his 20s.
His father, who had taken over the workshop when his father died, was not keen on his first born son becoming a coffin maker, but Eric had such a passionate interest in the work, that even without his father’s blessing, he chose coffin-making over college and has never regretted that choice.
Since 2005 he’s been working full-time at Kane Kwei’s Carpentry Workshop and in 2008 he became its manager, constructing coffins mainly for locals who still bought his coffins for the burial of their relations.
Historically, decorated coffins had only been for Ghana’s royalty. But that changed dramatically in the 1950s when the Kwei’s mother claimed she wanted to fly in an airplane before she died.
“The government was in the process of building Kotaka International Airport in Accra at the time, which is how she first heard about flying machines,” Eric said.
Sadly, the mother died before she could fulfil her dream, so her son built his first airplane coffin for a non-royal to bury his beloved mother in.
Since then, Ghana’s tradition of building decorative coffins has become renowned worldwide, as evidenced by Eric’s myriad invitations to construct and exhibit his coffins everywhere from Spain, South Korea and Siberia to the US, Belgium and Japan.
Documentaries have also been made about Ghana’s coffins by filmmakers from Brazil, Japan, Russia and the States.
And ever since 2010 when Jean-Michel helped to set up his own website, www.ghanacoffin.com, Eric can hardly keep up with all the requests from abroad for his coffins and his presence all the way from Tokyo and Rio to Philadelphia where he plans to go later this year to conduct workshops and show American art students how to construct designer coffins.
“I always wanted to travel,” said Eric, but now his main aim is not so much to travel but to transform the public perception from seeing Ghanaian coffins not merely as functional art but as fine art.
Already Ghanaian coffins are in permanent collections like Jean Pigozzi’s huge contemporary African art museum as well as many others.
But Eric still aspires to one day be recognized for his artistic mastery in the same way his grandfather was.
Already his hope is being realized as he continues receiving calls to come construct coffins from discerning African art collectors like the Russian billionaire Alexander Donskoy who wants Ghanaian coffins to stand at the centre of his new Museum of the Dead.
Yet Eric especially loves invitations from universities where he not only runs workshops but also works closely with professional artists and art instructors who help him refine his sculptural skills.
In that regard, Eric hopes to collaborate with Kenyan sculptors when he returns to Nairobi later this year. But before then, he has work to do in Russia, Denmark and the States.
Nonetheless, there is already one Kenya video team who intend to make yet another documentary on Eric when he comes back possibly in October. If and when he comes he will be welcome.