ISU engineering students will auction Ghanaian folk art coffin to fund village dam

3 engineering students with Ghanaian folk art

Engineers Without Borders-ISU will auction the folk art coffin by Eric Adjetey Anang to help fund an earthen dam in Ghana. From left, engineering students Kevin Strohm, Jason Schmitt and Joe Gettemy. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University engineering students hope that auctioning a rare work of folk art can help fund construction of an earthen dam for an African village.

The artwork is a painted coffin in the form of an ear of corn. It was sculpted by Ghana's leading fantasy coffin artist, Eric Adjetey Anang, when he was artist-in-residence in ISU's art and visual culture department in September.

A traditional folk art unique to the Ga people of southern Ghana, fantasy coffins are functional, customized coffins sculpted and painted to be figures or objects that represent the deceased. For example, a fisherman might have a coffin in the shape of a fish.

The fantasy coffin will be auctioned by the ISU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-ISU) through eBay's "Giving Fund," an easily accessible auction site for nonprofit fundraising. All proceeds will help fund the EWB-ISU's project to engineer an earthen dam in Ullo, Ghana.

Connections made

Serendipity best explains the unusual connection between the artist, the engineers and the small village in Ghana. After completing projects in Mali and Belize, EWB-ISU students sought a new undertaking. The nonprofit, humanitarian organization designs and implements community-driven, sustainable engineering projects worldwide.

Chris Martin headshot

Chris Martin.

The engineering students heard about Chris Martin, an associate professor of art and visual culture, and Tammi Martin, an ISU administrative specialist, who returned in 2010 from a two-year stint as Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana. The Martins connected them with a fellow volunteer and his wife from the village of Ullo. Located in drought-prone northwest Ghana, the village of 800 lacked a water distribution system.

"We learned there was a great need for sustainable water distribution for the community's daily activities and for their agricultural fields," said EWB-ISU member Joe Gettemy, a mechanical engineering major from Marion.

"Initially, we planned to construct wells. But when our assessment team arrived there last summer, the village had just learned that a government project would install a well. So, the team totally changed gears," he said.

In talking with villagers, the students recognized the need for a dam and irrigation system for local fields. They gathered as much data on rainfall, weather and topography as possible, and identified areas appropriate for dam construction.

Artwork created

Anang making art

Anang working on folk art coffin in ISU class.

Meanwhile, Chris Martin, who teaches wood design, hosted Anang's visit to campus. Anang created the ear-of-corn fantasy coffin while demonstrating his traditional woodworking processes to Martin's furniture design classes.

"Ghanaian fantasy coffins are exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world," Martin said. "Anang's work is highly sought after by collectors of contemporary ethnic art. He is recognized for keeping this art form alive."

Anang, Martin and the College of Design donated the artwork to EWB-ISU to raise funds for the Ullo dam.

Returning to Ghana

Although Ebola-related travel advisories in Africa precluded the engineering students from traveling to Ullo this summer, they'll return during winter break to finish surveying, soil testing and designing.

"We have a general idea of what the dam will look like and the equipment needed to build it," Gettemy said. "In December, about six of us will return to Ullo, gather exact data and finalize our design."

The students have raised $5,000, but need an additional $10,000 for the first phase of the dam project. Team members are responsible for their own airfare and extraneous expenses.

The fantasy coffin will be available for bids April 20-April 30 on eBay. General information is on eBay. Bidding starts at $500. To bid, complete the online form at . For additional information, contact Gettemy at 319-651-8086 or