Into the world-to-be in a Mercedes
There is always room for the human in a sculpture from the Ghanaian Kane Kwei. Carved from wood and then painted, each of his works embodies things important in the life and longings of the deceased and serves him as a coffin. Kane Kwei began as a carpenter with a taste for the sculptural, then from the 70s on, he and his workshop in Ghana made works for the art-world too. Born in a fishing-village on the Ghanaian coast in the early or mid 1920s, Kane Kwei died in 1992.
Kane Kwei was born in the 1920s in Teshi, a fishing-village between the capital Accra and Tema on the Ghanaian coast, which at that time was known by the colonial name of “Gold Coast”. He belonged to a royal clan from which the head of his village was customarily chosen. Like one of his uncles and an elder brother, Kane Kwei learnt the craft of a carpenter. Besides making furniture, doors and coffins, he also made copies of cocoa beans and miniature models of boats, which were popular among American soldiers stationed in Tema.
The first coffins to which he gave an unusually expressive form were for members of his family. For an uncle´s mother, who had been valued as a fisher-wife on the market, he made a big fish; and for the fisher-uncle himself he made a boat-coffin, whose outboard motor and nine rudders were an improvement on the equipment of his real boat.
Soon Kane Kwei had developed a series of models. The forms of houses, limousines and boats show and even improve the status of the deceased. Fruit of this land, whose outer walls are marbled with glowing hues, show family wealth in the form of cocoa-beans and onions. For a tuna-fisher, Kane Kwei made a tuna, for a whale-hunter a whale. An old man´s family ordered a coffin in the form of a crocodile, since their house had been built on crocodile-land by a river. Painted with pale grey feathers, a big hen guarding a flock of chickens was made for the mother of a big family.
European customers expressed more bizarre wishes. An English ethnologist wanted to be buried in a book; and a gynaecologist and art-collector, whose time in development aid had brought him to Ghana, ordered a womb-coffin.
Kane Kwei was discovered by various folk at the same time - by development helpers, by tourists, by journals like the German Geo, and by ethnologists, art experts, collectors and artists. In the 1970s a Los Angeles gallery-owner ordered seven coffins, and an American collector bought a collection for a museum. Kane Kwei´s participation in “Magiciens de la Terre” in the ´Centre Pompidou´ in Paris in 1989 made him a world celebrity. In many exhibitions since then, his works have contributed to Africa´s post-modern image.
Run since 1992 by his son, his workshop had up to nine carpenters and a painter, and many Ghanaian artists have adopted and developed his vocabulary. Among newer models are dinosaurs and Coca-Cola cans, showing the nearing of pop-culture.
Kane Kwei´s coffins are at home in many worlds. Their form relates them to our present existence, with its concern for status, show and fetishes, but their function relates them to our next one. Their material is ephemeral: Carved from wood - like mahogany or wawa - they were meant to lie in the earth and rot, belonging to the spirits of the dead, not to the memories of the living. Only through changing into art have they escaped from the ephemeral and become lasting documents of a culture. They bear witness physically to the social revolution of the post-colonial era; they belong to the sphere of faith and spirituality; they display the craftsmanship of their professional makers; and they have become works of art which upset the western notion of art for art´s sake.
The enthusiasm for Kane Kwei´s art reflects a yearning to reach beyond pure art and market-demands to other areas of life, since his sculptures easily blend the sacred and the profane. On the other hand his limousines such as a white Mercedes seem to reflect the exaggerated esteem for wares and possessions in pop-culture. One is tempted to suspect an ironical wink at capitalism. But their meaning is clearly different.
Kane Kwei´s coffins continue the tradition in which the deceased is equipped for his journey to the next world and is decked with gifts to keep him far from the living. European wares as status-symbols have been included since the arrival of European traders at the Gold Coast. Coffins were first commissioned during the colonial era, so Kwei´s occupation was traditional only insofar as he chose traditional symbols and rituals and renewed them in response to present demands.
Some photographs show coffins from Kane Kwei and other craftsmen at the places where they were made and used, at the heart of communication between members of families, but when shown in European or American exhibitions, they are viewed as isolated works. One of their contributions to contemporary culture has thus been to draw attention to the gulf between the craftsman´s aim and the viewer´s assumptions.
Author: Katrin Bettina Müller
Kane Kwei was born in Teshi in the 20s, his suggested year of birth being 1922, 1924 or 1926. At that time Ghana was still known by the colonial name of the "Gold Coast". Kane Kwei began as a carpenter, making not only furniture but also coffins. After he was discovered in the 1970s by the Western art world, his coffins were taken to museums, galleries and collections. The Paris exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre" in 1989 brought him international renown, and in Ghana many craftsmen have taken up and developed his models. Since his death in 1992, his workshop has been led by his son.
Group Exhibitions (Choice)
Exhibition / Installation
"Arts of Africa“, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, France
"African Art Now”, Museum of Fine Art, Houston, USA
"Sexualität und Tod - AIDS in der Zeitgenössischen Afrikanischen Kunst", RJM Museum, Cologne, Germany
"Ghana: hier et aujourd’hui", Musée Dapper, Paris, France
"AFRICA Vibrant New Art from a Dynamic Continent”, Tobu Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan
"Neue Kunst aus Afrika“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany
"Skizzen eines Projektes“, Ludwig Forum für internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany
"Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art”, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, USA
"Magiciens de la Terre”, Georges Pompidou Center, La Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, France
Solo Exhibitions (Choice)
Exhibition / Installation
"Ein Fisch für die letzte Ruhe“, Museum auf dem Ohlsdorfer Friedhof, Hamburg, Germany
"Kane Kwei”, Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art, Geneva, Switzerland
"Wie das Leben, so der Sarg...Nam June Paik“, Ifa Gallery, Bonn, Germany