LONDON — An oversized infant sucks at a cow’s udder while a snake-woman floats overhead. A naked, bloodied man is tied to a cross as the stump of his left foot stands up on its own, and a headless man kneels on the other side.
Surreal or disturbing imagery is a key feature of these posters, advertising Ghanaian movie screenings from the 1980s and ’90s. Another is their eye-popping use of color, which built on a tradition of hand-painted ads on Ghanaian storefronts. Poster artists like Joe Mensah and Frank Armah were hired by the operators of “mobile video clubs,” or VHS movie showings from vans powered by gas generators. They spent several days on each artwork.
These posters needed to be portable as well as attention-grabbing. They were usually painted by hand onto sacks or canvas, as large printing presses couldn’t be imported during Ghana’s military dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s. The hand-painted posters were then rolled up to travel from town to town as part of the mobile video clubs.
An exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, African Gaze, shows these one-of-a-kind posters flout many of the conventions of mass-produced Hollywood posters. Taglines and billing blocks are generally missing, although the names of the video clubs are often displayed in key places. The posters are largely uncluttered with text; the text that does appear is in English rather than in indigenous Ghanaian languages.
Sometimes the imagery appears to bear little relation to the film being advertised — and indeed, the painters hadn’t always seen the films they were illustrating. This kind of creative license attests to the way these posters transcend mainstream marketing. Some seem more startling and exciting than the films themselves, like the terrifying Tremors poster — a riot of blood and carnage, as opposed to a PG-13 film. The Jurassic Park poster features a man swinging a golf club at a long-necked dinosaur munching on a shirtless person. In general, it isn’t necessary to be familiar with a particular film to appreciate the poster loosely connected to it. Instead, they are imaginative art objects.
The abundance of posters on display, spread over multiple floors, allows for an appreciation of certain motifs. A kind of over-the-top horror imbues even the non-horror films, and violence is front and center. Religious or occult themes are common. Animal motifs are also popular, from the deranged-looking mouse on the poster for The Witches to the eponymous Vulture Men.
There’s limited explanation within the exhibition, allowing the artworks to speak for themselves. There’s also been no apparent attempt to group them according to themes, which replicates the global eclecticism of Ghanaian film tastes. Nigerian relationship dramas rub shoulders with American schlock. The posters proudly declare that certain movies are Indian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, or more ambiguously African.
A bit more socio-political context would have been useful to appreciate the posters as more than eccentric curiosities. It would have been similarly helpful to include some mention of these objects’ transformation from humble sack paintings into collectors’ items, which would have raised questions about ownership and value. While some of the painters earn commissions creating one-off works (one 2015 Indiegogo campaign for a Chicago movie store offered backers a unique Ghanaian film painting for $800), the original posters now sell for thousands of dollars each. Many of the original artists are no longer able to make a living off of their art; prolific poster painter Joe Mensah is now a car mechanic.
It’s speculated that the posters exhibited in the London gallery and a previous one in Los Angeles are owned and sold by (non-Ghanaian) collectors. Some of the artists have seen secondary benefits by making copies of posters or securing other commissions, but the art value chain isn’t making them the big winners.
These stunning posters are a celebration of global cinematic culture, as well as Ghanaian cultural remixing. On a recent visit, the gallery was full of gleeful, wide-eyed adults enthralled by the macabre. I was certainly one of them.
African Gaze: Hollywood; Bollywood and Nollywood film posters from Ghana continues at the Brunei Gallery in London through March 23.