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Paa Joe's Coffin in the Form of a Nike Sneaker

Paa Joe, Coffin in the Form of a Nike Sneaker, mid-1990s, wood, pigment, metal, fabric, 73.7 x 203.2 x 57.2 cm (Brooklyn Museum) A conversation with Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(catchy jazz music) - [Steven] We're in the Brooklyn Museum and we're looking at a large wooden sneaker. - [Peri] This is actually a coffin and it's made by Paa Joe, a Ghanaian artist working in Teshie and Accra on the coast of Ghana. This is actually a tradition that began in the 1950s with Kane Kwei, a Ga artist who began fashioning elaborate coffins for the nouveau rich for the elites of urban society. - [Steven] Well, that's nothing new. As far as we can look back in history, people have lavished enormous effort on funerary rites as a way of showing the deceased's importance. - [Peri] In this case however, Kane Kwei and his descendants who carried on the tradition began making coffins that represented something about the deceased. Usually it was a commodity of some sort that he could associate with them. - [Steven] So, a sneaker. Nike Air. The references are to modern consumer culture. - [Peri] And we don't know about this specific one but it could be that the deceased was an athlete. A great sports fan had an interest in running. - [Steven] So, somebody would commission Paa Joe to come and to create a coffin for them. This was in advance of their death very often. - [Peri] It's possible and we have a unique phenomenon that develops in urban Accra and urban Ghana in the 1950s of folks that have excess money to spend who are called the been-tos. That is they have been to Europe or they've been to the United States and they've been to capitalist societies where consumerism is live and well and they've brought back that same want and need for modern things. And that extends into the way in which they're buried. So, they would very likely commission something that suggested the status they held as been-tos. The references to consumerism particularly with designer shoes, designer cars. The very first coffins were less commodity commercialized in this way. For example, we had a woman who was buried in a coffin shaped as a hen and she did have a successful egg business but she was also thought of a mother hen in her community. - [Steven] What's interesting to me when I look at the sneakers, that it references the way that Western artists in the 1960s and early seventies appropriated low commercial culture with an ironic twist that we know as pop art but this is different. This is a claiming of the status that the object represents in a very direct way. - [Peri] And in the West, these are often seen as comical. And I don't think they were intended as such when the owners picked them out. They were really about going out in grand fashion. Funerals are one of the biggest events that is a transition from living to the supernatural realm in Ghana. And people spend lavish amounts of money to bury their relatives. And so, this was just a one-upmanship of what one could do the extravagance to which one could go to have a elaborate funeral. - [Steven] But maybe the irony exists in the idea that this particular coffin was not used but was rather collected. It became a work art in the Western sense, despite its original intention. - [Peri] Paa Joe, I think today gets more commissions from outsiders than he does from the local community. So we're finding that these have become collectors items and less and less are put into the ground to decay along with the body and more and more are put into exhibition spaces like the Brooklyn Museum. (catchy jazz music)