Coffin for a Cocoa Farmer

Seth Kane Kwei (Ghanaian, 1922–1992) belonged to a royal clan of the Ga; he lived in the suburb of Teshie, near Accra, the capital of Ghana. In the 1950s, he was an apprentice to a carpenter and sometimes made traditional rectangular coffins, in addition to palanquins used for transporting chiefs. He made a coffin shaped like an airplane for his grandmother, who had always been fascinated by planes flying overhead but had not flown before her death. Soon, orders were placed with Kwei for other representational coffins, each one alluding to the customer’s lifelong trade or status, such as boats for fishermen or mother hens for mothers. Since Ghana is one of the world’s largest cocoa producers, the cocoa pod was a popular form.

“That one is for a rich cocoa farmer. He wants to take his wealth with him when he dies.”—Seth Kane Kwei

Seth Kane Kwei, Coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod, ca. 1970
Seth Kane Kwei, Coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod, ca. 1970. Wood, paint, and cloth, 34 x 102 x 29 in. (86.4 x 259.1 x 73.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Vivian Burns, Inc., 74.8. Courtesy of Kane Kwei carpentry workshop. Photograph © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, photograph by Randy Dodson

The coffins are called abebuu adekai (boxes with proverbs) by the Ga. Kwei’s coffins are pieced together like furniture rather than carved from a single piece of wood. They are finished with enamel paint, and each one has a hinged lid and an upholstered interior (satin, velvet, or tie-dyed cloth), including a mattress and pillow. Today the Kane Kwei Workshop, one of almost a dozen in Ghana specializing in fantasy coffins, is owned by the descendants of Seth Kane Kwei and managed by his grandson, Eric Adjetey Anang.

We are now open and thrilled to welcome you back safely to the de Young museum! You can see Seth Kane Kwei's Coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod on view in Gallery 40. With your health and safety as our top priority, we’ve made some changes to create additional time and space for everyone.

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Text by Christina Hellmich, curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art. With thanks to Nichole Bridges and Kevin Dumouchelle. This text is an excerpt from the upcoming selected works publication, de Young 125, available for presale in Spanish, Mandarin, and English from the Museum Stores.

Learn more about African Art at the de Young.