Ghana carpenter Kane Quaye added a new dimension to his village’s funeral tradition when he built a playful, artfully decorated coffin in the shape of a canoe for his dying uncle, who had been a fisherman. The coffin made such a splash in the village–where the dead are bid farewell in the Ghanaian tradition of lavish funeral processions of music and dancing–that others began placing orders. That was more than 30 years ago. Over the years Quaye’s coffins became more elaborate and more in demand.

Many of the coffins in “A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins of Kane Quaye,” an exhibit opening Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center, are so brightly colored and fanciful that it’s difficult to discern their true purpose; they look like giant children’s toys. Each is designed to capture the essence of the person who died–subjects range from a hen for a nurturing mother to a field of onions for a farmer to a sand-brushed lobster, complete with antennae, for a fisherman. The coffins are also shaped after Western objects, like airplanes and cars–deviations from traditional African depictions of animals and figures.

“By and large, the introduction of a Mercedes or airplane is very clear,” says Lanny Silverman, associate curator for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. “They may indicate a person wishing to show that they are successful by Western standards. The tradition is a natural extension of the funeral practices and adds the object fetishism of the West.”

The coffins have attracted the interest of Western dealers and collectors. Quaye’s work has shown several times in the United States and has been written about in the New York Times and National Geographic magazine. Custom coffins from his workshop are even sold by Neiman-Marcus for $3,000–small change for some Americans but 100 times what they cost in Ghana, where they sell for about $300, or almost a year’s income.

“The coffins in Ghana are utilized, and these [in the catalog] are art–and that’s a whole other matter,” says Silverman. “Although you never know–I suppose if someone here wanted to be buried in a cigarette case, for example, they could write in to the workshop and that’s what they would make.”

Quaye died in 1992, and his son continues to run his workshop. Ironically, Quaye was a Christian who wanted a traditional funeral. He was buried in a pine box with a small saw painted on the side.

“A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins of Kane Quaye” opens this Saturday–hours are 10 to 5–and runs through March 24 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; admission is free. Silverman will give a free gallery talk about the exhibit at 12:15 on Friday, February 9. Call 744-6630 for more.

–Cara Jepsen