As part of her preparation for a new exhibition of vintage hand-painted Ghanaian movie posters, Poster House chief curator Angelina Lippert scoured eBay to buy video cassette copies of the action and horror flicks that inspired the gloriously extreme interpretations of their box covers. Upon durable flour sacks in brilliant, bold colors, Ghana’s movie poster artists depicted the full potential of Jason Voorhees’ capable blade work or King Kong’s upper body strength. Stars, serpents, demons, coffins, blood, guts, guns and explosions if a movie featured them (or even if they didn’t), Ghanaian posters showcased them with a flair for the dramatic.
With the exhibit, “Baptized by Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-painted Movie Posters from Ghana,” which opens today at the New York City museum, Lippert wants visitors to better understand why.
The 40 posters featured in the exhibit were created out of necessity as a proliferation of video cassette tapes helped create a new cultural opportunity in the impoverished country called the mobile cinema. Imported cassettes shipped to Ghana’s port cities circulated through the country’s interior villages thanks to entrepreneurs who trucked videos, AV gear, and advertising from town to town, often hosting screenings at open-air churches.
Beginning in the 1980s and peaking in the ’90s, the mobile cinema offered Ghanaians the opportunity to view a blockbuster like Terminator on a night that often also included poetry, dancing, songs and sermons, Lippert said. At a time when numbers of practicing Pentecostals were growing in Ghana, many mobile cinema attendees viewed a Schwarzenegger or Stallone movie through a spiritual lens that valued battles of good versus evil. “I ended up watching all of these movies in preparation for the show,” Lippert said. “I hadn’t seen any of these since I was a kid, and Terminator is 100% a Jesus parable. There is no other way to watch it. That’s just what it is.”
While videos made their way to Ghana, promotional material didn’t, so mobile cinema operators commissioned trained, apprenticed sign artists to produce attention-grabbing graphics on weather-resistant flour bags. When the poster is the only ad you’ve got, you’ve got to make it last. “So many of these posters were used and used and used,” said Brian Chankin, owner of Deadly Prey, a gallery in Chicago that partners with Ghanaian sign artists to create commissioned works now that the mobile cinema’s day has passed. “It’s only secondary that the posters are so interesting that they develop a new life after the movie’s shown.”
Untethered from the movie’s actual narrative, the artists had complete creative freedom to paint what they knew would sell tickets
Chankin was at the tail end of his first visit to Ghana when we talked on the phone. There, he finally met face-to-face with artists with whom he’s worked for years via Deadly Prey (the gallery named for a low-budget Rambo ripoff that took off in Ghana during the mobile cinema era). Through an intermediary in Ghana who was a traveling screener, Chankin has commissioned one-of-a-kind reproductions of many of mobile cinema’s greatest hits (Predator, Alien) as well as versions of contemporary fare viewed through that epic lens (Friends, but with fireballs) that sell for $300 to $600 on average.
Chankin, who also runs Odd Obsession Movies in Chicago, said that, in terms of creative risk-taking, the Ghanaian art compares with some of the most adventurous American-made movie posters of the ’60s and ’70s. The hand-painted Ghanaian posters were likely more influential for potential audience members, too, since they were the only form of promotion a film would get in the country. “The more wild they’re going to make the image, the more tickets they’re going to sell,” he said.
In a CNN piece on Ghana posters and Deadly Prey, artist Heavy Jay, a longtime poster artist based in Teshie, said he occasionally drew inspiration from watching movies and embellishing the scenes he enjoyed. “But if the movie was so boring, then I had to do it by my own imagination, which mostly features some images and actions that (were) not in the movies, to attract more people to go watch them,” he wrote in an email to CNN.
And that gets right to the exposed, throbbing heart of what makes these movie posters unique. The artists unabashedly aimed for the jugular—depicting suped-up characters in stark relief, presenting bomb blasts and bloodletting in the boldest of colors. Untethered from the movie’s actual narrative, the artists had complete creative freedom to paint what they knew would sell tickets in Ghana, and the public’s desire for epic stories led to epic posters.
Artists who painted posters of the Western films that circulated in Ghana during the mobile cinema era often incorporated long-held cultural beliefs or religious imagery into the final product. Take the poster for Ghost, for instance. In Ghana, the vengeful ghost—a restless spirit reappearing to take care of unfinished business—is a storytelling device that resonates. “That is exactly what the movie Ghost is about—a guy who died who can’t rest until revenge is taken upon the guys who murdered him,” Lippert said.
The poster takes some liberties with the plot, which could help explain the success of “Ghost” on a mobile cinema circuit where romantic dramas lagged in popularity behind action, martial arts and horror films. Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning turn as a psychic did not involve her clawing through Demi Moore’s abdomen as Patrick Swayze looked on, aghast, from the beyond, but it sure makes you notice the poster. “It’s incredibly extreme, which is not in the movie, but that’s how they advertised the movie,” Lippert said.
The Ghost on display at Poster House was painted by D. A. Jasper, an influential (and still practicing) artist based in Accra, Ghana’s capital. He was also into bodybuilding, Lippert said, which leant itself to over-the-top interpretations of action films. “If you look at his poster for The Barbarians, it’s two dudes beyond jacked,” Lippert said. “The clothing has muscles. Everything has muscles in these posters. Because of his personal preference for hyper-muscular style, other artists started incorporating that into their posters.”
“The clothing has muscles. Everything has muscles in these posters.”
The “Baptized by Beefcake” exhibit explores the degree of influence that poster makers had on one another by leading exhibit-viewers through the collection geographically, beginning with examples from painters based in port cities where the cassettes first arrived. Then, as the traveling cinemas did, the exhibit fans out and inland across Ghana. You notice differences in style across the 40-poster collection, Lippert said, but also the development of an artistic family tree linking the 22 featured painters in the collection on loan from the Ernie Wolfe Gallery.
And, from a Western vantage point, you see a set of posters that deliver more action than many of the movies ever managed to. Roger Ebert wrote that the cast of King Kong Lives acted like “they’ve used Kong’s tranquilizer gun for target practice on themselves.” Ghanaian artist Leonardo bathed the New York City skyline in fire and promised audiences a tank-throwing Kong who tested torsos well beyond their limits. Maybe the movie didn’t deliver any thrills, but the posters do.