Now through Dec. 10 at the Black Box Theater in the Iowa Memorial Union, you’ll find an exhibition of six large, painted, wooden objects: an airplane, honeybee, corncob, red chili pepper and an Oxford-style dress shoe. Another represents a water spirit known as Mami Wata. Nothing immediately apparent unites them. Yes, two have wings and two are vegetables, and the airplane and dress shoe might suggest some economic privileges. The display of the corncob, however, makes it clear that these are coffins, or “fantasy coffins,” according to the exhibition headline, created by artist Eric Adjetey Anang.
As expensive and highly conspicuous status symbols in southern Ghana, abebuu adekai (receptacles of proverbs), now commonly known as “fantasy coffins,” serve as a final offering to deceased individuals that were accomplished members of society. They equally provide a vessel for a journey to the afterlife, where the dead become ancestral spirits that oversee the living. For Ga peoples who worship kpele (nature spirits), a respective belief in reincarnation positions abebuu adekai in a critical role between transitional stages in the cycle of life.
So why are these objects now at an art museum in Iowa City? Two reasons: the first is art historical in nature, and the second is particular to the African collection at the University of Iowa Museum of Art.