The origins of African art lie long before recorded history. African rock art in the Sahara in Niger preserves 6000-year-old carvings. Along with sub-Saharan Africa, the western cultural arts, ancient Egyptian paintings and artifacts, and indigenous southern crafts also contributed greatly to African art. Often depicting the abundance of surrounding nature, the art was often abstract interpretations of animals, plant life, or natural designs and shapes. The Nubian Kingdom of Kush in modern Sudan was in close and often hostile contact with Egypt, and produced monumental sculpture mostly derivative of styles that did not lead to the north. In West Africa, the earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture which thrived between 500 BC and 500 AD in modern Nigeria, with clay figures typically with elongated bodies and angular shapes.
More complex methods of producing art were developed in sub-Saharan Africa around the 10th century, some of the most notable advancements include the bronzework of Igbo Ukwu and the terracottas and metalworks of Ile Ife Bronze and brass castings, often ornamented with ivory and precious stones, became highly prestigious in much of West Africa, sometimes being limited to the work of court artisans and identified with royalty, as with the Benin Bronzes.
Africa is also home to a thriving contemporary art, fine art culture. This has been sadly understudied until recently, due to scholars' and art collectors' emphasis on traditional art. In Ghana, Ga contemporary artists have carved a niche for themselves in the area of figurative palanquin designs and Fantasy coffin artistry.
The pioneer in this area is Ataa Oko.
Ataa Oko (c. 1919, La, Ghana - December 9, 2012, Accra) was a builder of figurative palanquins and fantasy coffin and over 80 years old he even became a painter of Art Brut.
Ataa Oko painting a chicken coffin for Regula Tschum
Ataa Oko was born around 1919 in the coastal town of La, Ghana. He never went to school, but started work as fisherman at the age of 13 in his Coastal Ga community of La. As it is the initiative of some Gas to engage in settler farming activities when fishing season does not perform well, Ataa`s family sent him to the cocoa plantations in the Ashanti Region.
After working for several years in the farm, Ataa returned to Accra and trained as a carpenter from 1936 to 1939. After his apprenticeship, Ataa also worked in numerous temporary employments between 1939 and 1970. According to Regula Tschumi, Ghana-based Swiss social anthropologist and art historian. Ataa started building figurative coffins around 1945 when few people were involved in that art. He opened his own workshop in the city of La.
In his old age Ataa relinquished his coffin making career and began to draw after he met Regula Tschumi. Tschumi who is instrumental in bringing this hitherto unknown indigenous artist to the world attention studied Ataa`s funereal sculptures and asked him to represent (paint) all the coffins that he had produced. Over time, however, he started to represent a lot of colorfull subjects : fantasy animals, imaginary creatures and spirits. Through his hard-work and exceptional raw artistic talent Ataa succeeded in a new area where many had failed.
Figurative palanquin, drawing of Ataa Oko 2009
Ataa Oko had been inspired by the figurative palanquins he had seen in Accra. These palanquins were used by the Ga chiefs already at the beginning of the 20th century. The palanquins were built in the form of the respective family symbols which the Ga chiefs were using. Around 1960 Ataa Oko opened his own coffin and palanquin workshop in La. The last years of his life, Ataa Oko was retired and hardly built coffins any more. But since 2005 he became a painter in collaboration with Regula Tschumi. Ataa Okos coffins and drawings were first exhibited in the group show "Six Feet Under" at the Kunstmuseum Berne 2006 and 2010/11 he had first one man show in the well known Collection de l'Art brut in Lausanne. Ataa Oko died in December 2012.
Ataa Oko (right) and Kudjo Affutu with Oko's red cock (Rooster) coffin. Circa 2009. Courtesy Regula Tschum
Single and Group Exhibitions
2014. MUT Museum of the University Tübingen: "Diesseits-Jenseits-Abseits".
2012. MEN Musée ethnographique Neuchâtel Hors-Champs.
2011/12. Miracles of Africa, Hämeenlinna Art Museum, Hämeenlinna and Oulu Museum of Art, Oma, Finland
2011. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Ghanaian 'fantasy coffin', 27th Sep 2011 - 4th Dec 2011. Griff Rhys Jones.
2010/11. Collection de l'art brut, Lausanne. One man show Ataa Oko et les Esprits.
2006 and 2007/2008. Kunstmuseum Bern and Deutsches Hygienemuseum, Dresden. Exhibition Six Feet Under: Autopsie unseres Umgangs mit Toten.
Ataa Oko coffin in the shape of a battleship, 1960 - Regula Tschumi, "The buried treasures of the Ga. Coffin Art in Ghana", p137, Benteli, 2008
Ataa Oko with his son Kofi on the beach of La in December 2002
Ataa Oko drawing in front of his house in La 2005