In the 1980s and ‘90s, a vibrant new art form proliferated in Ghana: Kung Fu movie posters painted by self-taught artists on recycled flour sacks. Known locally as “crowd-pullers,” these posters advertised the only variety of cinema available in much of the country, parts of which lacked an electrical grid — mobile screenings of VHS tapes in vans with gas-powered generators. These were hosted by entrepreneurial traveling film fanatics. West African audiences were particularly enamored with Kung Fu flicks coming out of Hong Kong, like Jackie Chan’s Hand of Death, Bruce Lee’s Exit the Dragon, and Jet Li’s Master of Shaolin. Trained in a loose master-apprentice system, sign-painters decorated the Ghanese landscape with their fantastical portraits of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and other martial arts stars.
Ghana’s hand-painted movie poster tradition is now obsolete, replaced by digitally printed images. In the late 90s, mobile movie-going gave way to cheap TVs. But the art form is not entirely lost to the world. Over the past two decades, Ernie Wolfe, a dealer in African art and head of a namesake gallery in Los Angeles, collected dozens of these posters during trips to Ghana. Thirty-two highlights of his collection are now featured in Kung Fu in Africa: Golden Age Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana (1985–1999), on view at Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery in collaboration with Ernie Wolfe Gallery. They’re painted by 13 self-taught artisan-artists, some with Kung Fu-inspired pseudonyms: Joe Mensah, Leonardo, Death is Wonder, Alex Nkrumah Boateng, D.A. Jasper, Stoger, Bright Obeng, Gilbert Forson, Samuel, Dan Nyenkumah, Africatta, Babs, and Muslim.
China’s biggest action stars rendered in this folk style is a recipe for some of the more unique movie posters you’ll likely ever see. “Lucky Ninja Kids” throw fists, “The New One-Armed Swordsman” brandishes his blade, the Fatal Flying Gulotines (sic) wield their fearsome weapons. For Westerners used to the photoshopped homogeneity of contemporary Hollywood’s movie posters, they’re especially striking reminders of how technical and formal limitations spark creativity. Many of these posters artists never had the chance to see the films before painting, so they’re filled with scenes sprung from the artists’ imaginations instead of the films themselves.
The idiosyncrasy of these images comes from an organic collision of cultures and artistic styles, one without any of the corporate, mass-produced ad aesthetic that prevails in major film industries. “This was a direct Hong Kong-to-Africa transmission, without any kind of Western filtering,” Wolfe writes in a curatorial essay. “I consider these Golden Age movie posters to be the visual equivalent of neon signage, but without the benefit of electricity. Whether viewed from a passing bus, through swirling dust at 40 miles per hour, or studied from a distance of five feet on the side of the road, the imagery in these posters is undeniably arresting.”
KUNG FU IN AFRICA: Golden Age Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana (1985-1999) continues at Hanart TZ Gallery (Pedder Building, 12 Pedder St, Central, Hong Kong) until April 16.