Q&A with Director Christina Olsen and Ernie Wolfe III, Class of 1972
In honor of reunion weekend we reflect on the many generous contributions from Williams alumni. One such contribution is the artwork, Fantasy Coffin (Fantastic Afterlife Vehicle) in the form of a Marlboro Cigarette Pack, 1995, given by Ernie Wolfe III, Class of 1972. WCMA director Christina Olsen had a conversation with Ernie Wolfe about his gift.
Christina Olsen: Could you tell us how you came to acquire the coffin?
Ernie Wolfe III: I bought this FAV (Fantastic Afterlife Vehicle) on my third trip to Ghana, in 1993. It was sculpted by Theophilus Nii Anum Sowah, the artist whose career I have followed and works I have collected for more than 20 years now. Nii Anum was chief apprentice to Kane Kwei, the progenitor of this tradition. It was painted by D.A. Jasper, whose praise portrait of President Obama is also in the WCMA collection. Jasper is, as well, among the most important of the artists involved with the Golden Age of hand painted movie posters in Ghana.
CO: What was its original use or context? Was it meant to be used as a coffin?
EW: It would not be much of a stretch to imagine the Marlboro pack FAV, with its rather normal rectangular coffinoidal-box-like-form, to be a pure coffin. But in reality, this was among the first FAVs that were never intended to be buried. From its inception, it was a conceptual art piece. Nii Anum hates smoking and knew exactly what he was doing when he created it, celebrating this literal vehicle of death. To back up for a moment, the great majority of FAVs created by the Ga people of the Southeast Ghanaian coast were made to celebrate the aspirations or achievements of the deceased, hence, a red fish for a great hook and line fisherman, a cow for a farmer, a hen with chicks for a mother or a Mercedes Benz sedan for a business tycoon. They are among the largest and most colorful traditional sculptures ever to come from Africa.
CO: Does it have any special significance for you?
EW: My mother died from smoking and lung cancer in 1984, and I too, hate cigarettes. It was Nii Anum’s idea to create this sculpture, but it was for me, as a collector of his work that he made it. Often times FAVs are custom jobs that involve a dialogue between the family of the deceased and the sculptor.
After we began working together, his intention as an artist became to create variations on the form of the traditional coffin, and take this lidded container-like entity as far away as it could be formally transmutated. In the case of the Marlboro pack, rather than going curvilinear as he did in the dinosaur form FAVs he created contemporaneously, he stuck with the basic rectangular box format and let Jasper’s brush tell the rest of the story. He oversaw the work. I consider the poignancy of his statement to be timeless—that cigarettes and death are inseparable.
CO: Why did you give it to WCMA?
EW: This sculpture should be part of the visual vocabulary of every student at Williams College.
Above installation images from the exhibition, Creativity and Invention in African Art, 2006: Theophilus Nii Anum Sowah, (Ghana, b. 1969), Fantasy Coffin (Fantastic Afterlife Vehicle) in the form of a Marlboro Cigarette Pack, 1995, wood, oil, and rayon, Gift of Ernie Wolfe III, Class of 1972. (97.14)