Ever since I saw “Baptized By Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana” back in October I’ve been meaning to write about it, but I got sidetracked by all the end of the decade and the year reviews. So I am very glad to hear that the exhibition at New York’s six-month old Poster House—the first museum in the United States dedicated exclusively to posters—has been extended through February 16, giving more people a chance to see some of the most extraordinary movie posters in the world up close.
I’d been hearing about the phenomenon of the hand-painted Ghanaian movie posters for years, but most of the clickbait articles I read about them treated the posters in the same way: as kitsch objects of exceeding weirdness. Since almost all the films portrayed were Hollywood blockbusters or genre movies of the 1980s and ’90s the kitsch factor was intensified, and the fact that some of the images on the posters bore little resemblance to the films they were promoting only added to the chuckle factor. The images themselves, however, were very striking: crude and colorful and often defiantly gory, they turned the slick product of 1980s America into bona fide African folk art.
But nothing prepares you for seeing these works of art in the flesh. Born of a long Ghanaian tradition of mural and sign painting (boys would be apprenticed with established sign painters if they showed artistic promise in elementary school), the posters came of age in the 1980s when an influx of VHS tapes from the U.K. allowed entrepreneurial showmen to set up “video clubs” and travel the country showing everything from Howard the Duck to The Return of Swamp Thing. To promote their screenings, since printing presses were a rarity and expensive, the video clubs would commissioned local artists to paint one-off posters, usually based off the VHS cover design. Because the posters were transported from place to place they needed to be rolled up, but painting on paper wasn't durable so the posters were painted onto flour sacks that were stitched together and then rolled onto a dowel rod.
Considering that the posters were displayed outdoors and endured the wear and tear of constant travel, it is a miracle that any of them survived, much of which can be credited to Ernie Wolfe III, an American gallerist who had travelled a lot in Africa and who fell in love with the posters, started collecting them and in 2001 published his first book celebrating this this unique art form, entitled Extreme Canvas.
In person, the posters are unexpectedly gorgeous and the chuckle factor gives way to a sense of awe. The cracked paint on the cloth gives them the patina of medieval icons and the frayed edges of their canvases add to their utilitarian charm. The posters are also larger than you might expect and the smaller details, easily missed in print or online, are often exquisite as well as quite often truly bizarre.
The exhibition is beautifully arranged and does a good job of differentiating the artists, who had been mostly anonymous in most of the articles I’d read. Artists like D.A. Jasper who, as a bodybuilder himself, was fascinated by musculature and pioneered the “muscles on muscles” style that became one of the genre’s hallmarks, or Alex Nkrumah-Boateng, the father of the genre, who came up with the idea of using the flour sacks as canvas, or Kofi Kuwornu who took up the pen name Death is Wonder and who is “considered the most unconventional interpreter of movie plots.”
I recommend seeing these works of art in person if you can, but for those of you who aren’t in New York I’ve chosen some of my favorite pieces and zeroed in on some of the details. And in case you didn’t recognize the image above as Christopher “Kid” Reid of Kid ’n Play, here is the full poster for House Party, a film that was apparently popular in Ghana—unusually so for a non-action or horror movie—for being “one of the first to showcase modern black affluence.”
Because Daryl Hannah’s mermaid in Splash resembled the Ghanian deity Mami Wata, her face on the poster was worn away by passersby touching it in veneration.
“Baptized By Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana” runs through February 16 at Poster House in New York.