No Longer Buried: Paa Joe’s Ephemeral Art

Paa Joe (Screen shot from

Paa Joe (Screen shot from

Art isn’t supposed to be like this, is it?

Usually, once a certain status has been conferred upon a work of art, it is supposed to be timeless, meant to outlive you and I and many subsequent generations in a nice corner of a museum somewhere.

Think for a minute of the greatest works of art known to man. Works like the “Haystacks” of Claude Monet, the Sistine chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo, and the cave paintings in the El Castillo cave have all been deemed aesthetically exceptional and have thus been protected by various people, societies, and governments for posterity. Ideally, these works will be seen firsthand by millions and be preserved for many, many years.

But the work of Ghanian artist Paa Joe isn’t supposed to be timeless. It isn’t meant to be seen for more than a few hours, by more than a few people. You see, Paa Joe’s work isn’t made for the living; it’s made for the dead. Or, at least, it originally was.

Paa Joe began sculpting coffins when he was just 16 years old. His work follows in the tradition of the Ga tribe, who believe it is important to honor the dead with brightly-colored coffins that often represent an aspect of the deceased’s life. Over time, Paa Joe has become a master sculpter and his intricately carved and beautifully painted coffins have come in the form of a Coca-Cola bottle, a Porsche car, and (as seen above) a lion.

For the most part, though, Paa Joe’s work has been unknown to the Western world. Although some of his coffins have appeared as examples of Ga culture in the British Museum in London and the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, his name isn’t mentioned in discussions of influential contemporary artists. Part of the reason for that, I suspect, is because there are those who are hesitant to label what Paa Joe does “art” (notice how his work has been called examples of Ga “culture” and not Ga “art”).

Recently, however, his work has been brought to the attention of the art world by a documentary entitled “Paa Joe: Dead Not Buried,” from filmmaker Benjamin Wigley. The documentary follows the story of Paa Joe, whose business suffered when he could no longer afford the rent and was forced to move from the center of his village to its outskirts. He now hopes to make a name for himself in the contemporary art world in order to continue his trade and save his livelihood.

As an artist, which is clearly how Wigley sees him, Paa Joe’s work is interesting because of the tradition it follows in and the incredible talent behind it. It’s also equally as enthralling because of Paa Joe’s own feelings toward his work. He’s not pleased about the fact that so few have a chance to see it.

“Sometimes when it’s finished when people take it to put it in the grave, I am not happy,” he told the BBC. “I used my idea to make that thing.”

Other artists whose art necessitates that it never be seen again usually enjoy this quality of their art. When the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín recreated the Obelisco de Buenos Aires out of sweet bread to commemorate Argentina’s 400th anniversary, she wasn’t upset when it was toppled down and eaten 11 days later. For her, as well as the auto-destructive artists whose work are related to Minujín’s own, the destruction is just as important as the creation. The art isn’t complete until it is destroyed.

Paa Joe’s art, however, is complete before it is, essentially, destroyed. It won’t ever be the same once the earth begins to eat away at it as it would had it been preserved in a museum. Yet now that Paa Joe is making the transition from craftsman to artist, his work will both be seen and preserved.

This transition from craftsman to artist presents its own challenge with regard to understanding Paa Joe’s work, as the ephemerality of it is no longer an issue. The transition brings up certain questions that don’t normally have to be dealt with when considering an artist’s work. For example, does the difference in career distinction from “craftsman” to “artist” change the object that Paa Joe has created? What should we make of the loss of use-value as the coffins go from being made for somebody to being made, in a sense, for everybody? Is the creator’s declaration that these products are now “art” as opposed to being something like a “beautiful craft” all we need to say that yes, these creations are works of art? Is there any real difference at all between the work Paa Joe was doing to make a living as a coffin maker to the work he is now doing as an artist?

To be clear, I don’t have the answers to these questions. The answers to them and the theory needed to justify those answers are the stuff dissertations are made of. If I were to be put on the spot, though, I’d likely argue that Paa Joe was creating art before he made the career switch and before Western eyes deemed it worthy of inclusion in a museum somewhere. But, with that said, I’m not sure that there is a perfect answer for any of the questions that Paa Joe’s work presents.

And that’s OK. We shouldn’t worry that we might never come across that ideal answer. The best part of Paa Joe’s art, even better than the incredible detail and knife work, is that it forces us to think critically and challenges us to defend or expand our conception of what art can and should be, just as all good art should.


CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
Monday’s Viral Video: Impala on the Run
The Strange, Sad Saga of Amanda Bynes
Phil Mickelson Reminds Us Why We Love Sports
Monday’s Viral Video: For Those Senior Citizens About to Rock, We Salute You
Beertopia: Inlet Brewing Company’s Monk in the Trunk

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