Joe, who turned 69 this week, is Ghana’s most prolific coffin artist and, after five decades in the funeral industry producing some of the world’s most extravagant designs, his work is being celebrated in a major exhibition in Accra.
Joe’s work – which includes coffins in the shape of Porsches, naked women, Nike trainers, cameras, Coca-Cola bottles and chilli peppers – is designed to represent the life of the deceased, with each item handcrafted and painted for the funeral procession, which can last up to three days and three nights.
Working with curator Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Joe and his son Jacob have developed an exhibition that explores the traditions behind the fantasy coffins and their particular popularity within the Ga community in Ghana, where this unique custom began.
Joe’s creations have attracted high-profile fans: Jacob recalls visits from Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, and the ex-US president Jimmy Carter, who reportedly purchased two coffins. Bill Clinton also stopped by during an official state visit to Ghana in 1998.
Joe discovered coffin-making when he was 16, when his mother sent him to do an apprenticeship in the Ga fishing community of Teshie. His uncles, Ajetey and Kane Kwei, were prominent fantasy coffin makers in the area in the 1950s, and Joe worked with Kane for 12 years before returning to Accra in 1976 to establish his own workshop.