“They’re not just film posters – they’re 2m-high, one-off, original oil paintings,” says Karun Thakar, the collector and curator behind African Gaze, an exhibition showcasing film posters from Ghana.
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African Gaze features more than 100 posters – from the late 1970s to the early 2000s – that served as hand-painted billboard posters and were displayed in public spaces, such as roadsides and markets. They advertised mobile video club screenings of Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood and Ghanaian films.
The posters are often gruesome and gaudy, turning up the dial on the film’s themes to eleven: Jurassic Park features a freakish dinosaur gobbling up a man and a person playing golf, indicating that the artists painting these posters might not have seen the films, while the poster for Total Recall depicts a Martian woman with three breasts who appears in just one scene.
Graphically, the posters were designed to quite literally command attention and entice people to come and see the films being screened by mobile video clubs such as Princess Osu and Pal Mal Video Club, who would load VCRs, diesel generators and projectors into trucks and take the latest films to communities without access to cinemas.
Close inspection of many of the posters reveal that screenings often took place at 8.30pm and cost 300 cedis. “It was business,” explains Thakar. “Entrepreneurs wanted their screenings to be sold out, and after the screening the posters would be rolled up and unrolled in the next village to advertise another screening – Princess Osu were known to use good artists and would pay the artists above the going rate.”
Because they were paraded outdoors, paper wasn’t suitable; instead sacks of flour were flattened out, stitched together and repurposed as canvasses for the oil and acrylic paintings. “If you look closely, you can see the flour brand and 50kg underneath the painting advertising the film,” says Thakar.
The posters are, in effect, a visual time capsule and reveal much about Ghana and West Africa as the 20th Century ticked over into the 21st. Some of the Nollywood and Ghanaian film posters, such as Power to Power, highlight a tension between modern Western Christianity – introduced by colonialism – and local faiths and belief systems, with a European Christ saving a demonic, possessed woman.
Equally, the presence of Bollywood posters highlights the popularity of mainstream Hindi cinema, pointing to a global cosmopolitanism. “When I walked around markets in Ghana, I was always struck by people singing popular Bollywood songs,” explains Thakar. “I grew up with Bollywood, and these posters show Bollywood’s family stories, dance, drama, overacting and melodrama were popular with local audiences.”
“Ghost-ma films, where a mother dies and her spirit comes back and protects her child through an animal, seem popular; there’s Nagin Aur Suhagan, in which the mother comes back as a snake. Snakes and serpents feature heavily across Nollywood and Ghanaian film posters – we had to make a conscious effort to make sure there weren’t too many snakes in the exhibition,” continues Thakar.
He can attest to the posters’ arresting qualities: a textile collector, he was first drawn to these posters when one caught his eye in a visit to Ghana in the late-1990s. It piqued his interest – and that of his late partner, award-winning TV and film producer Mark Shivas – to the extent that they went on to collect hundreds of the posters.
Thakar and Shivas were particularly attracted to the posters portraying Hollywood films, which were familiar yet outlandishly different, reflecting their re-imagination by Ghanaian street artists in a period before the digital revolution began to make visual cultures and iconography more accessible around the world.
“What really excites me are the posters that take popular images from Hollywood and transpose local imagery – they’re not just copies of the Hollywood posters,” says Thakar. “The original Hollywood poster for Stepfather 3 is very dark, with a black background and a man holding a fork, but in the poster by Ghanaian artist Nyen Kumah, the stepfather is partially buried and emerging from the soil, there’s triffid-like foliage enveloping him and the colours are vivid – it’s very different from the original.
“Also look at the way the blood is dripping and splattered on the fork and trowel, it’s so detailed and is reminiscent of early Western and Christian painting in the way that veins and blood are depicted; Nyen Kumah is renowned for how he painted blood and veins. Each poster is an amazing feat of art which you don’t realise until you confront them up close,” continues Thakar.
Joe Mensah is another artist renowned for a specific style, using arresting colour combinations and fantastical, eye-popping renderings of bulging muscles and thick, swollen veins, flowing like tributaries, perhaps most notably in The Seven Wanders [sic] of Ali Baba.
Yet many of these talented artists have been unable make a living making from art. The golden age of hand-painted film posters was facilitated by military dictatorships banning printing presses, stymying the mass production of film posters and stimulating demand for one-off versions.
In the early 2000s this changed, and the onset of digital technology meant ways of watching movies began to evolve. “The heyday for these posters was the 1990s and early 2000s; after that, video and DVDs finished and demand for the posters stopped. I spoke to Joe Mensah before the exhibition opened and he’s working as a car mechanic – many of these amazing artists have gone back to doing ordinary jobs, which is tragic,” explains Thakar.
“Many of the artists were well trained and did three- to four-year apprenticeships, but have been unable to make a living as artists – Joe said the only work he does is making new copies of old posters for a few hundred dollars. African art doesn’t get the exposure it should, so it’s really quite tragic that these artists have been lost, especially as today their work is sought after and is selling for thousands of dollars.”
African Gaze: Film Posters from Ghana is at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, London until 23 March.
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