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In many African cultures, when a person dies, the role of family and friends is to make sure the dead are prepared for what comes after. For some, it's important to go out in style.


A carpenter by trade, Ghanaian artist Kane Kwei first started making original "fantasy" coffins in the 1970s when his uncle asked him for a special coffin.  He made one in the shape of a boat for him-- he was a fisherman. 

Ben Kane Kwei Sowah. Fantasy Coffin (Mercedes Benz), 1996.

Eliot Elisofon Minganji masqueraders from the Pende peoples near Gungu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1970.



Africans generally believe that death is part of life and that dead ancestors are still alive in this world as spirits. Many Africans perform rituals making offerings to ancestors to ask for help solving problems or through important periods of life.


Sometimes, these ancestor spirits come to life in rituals or masquerades. Portrayed by community members in masks and costume-- almost always men-- the ancestors guide, judge or just entertain the living.

Ancestor Spirits

"The Mambila, in the border region between Nigeria and Cameroon, place small ancestor figures called tadep in nets strung on the front walls of small storage huts for ritual objects.  The figures are not associated with specific ancestors and as a result are not given names. They are treated rather casually; if one falls to the ground it is left to decay and is only replaced with a new figure at the end of the year (Schwartz 1976: 19-22, figs. 10-13, 40).

The tadep are carved from a single piece of soft, easily-worked wood.  Ancestor figures of a second type, called kike, are made up of segments of palm pith pegged together.  These soft, fibrous materials produce figures composed of rough broad shapes with an irregular surface on which details are applied with pigment (Schwartz 1976: 14)."




Nigeria and Cameroon; Mambila peoples

Tadep (ancestor figure)

Wood, traces of pigment

H. 38.1 cm (15”)

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.339

Ancestor Figures


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