Pass through the doors of Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ gallery and you would normally expect to encounter Chinese contemporary art. Tonight, however, you’ll find a world of bright and vibrant colours tinted with lightness and happiness. Hand painted movie posters from the golden age of Hong Kong martial art cinema line the gallery’s walls, offering an invitation into the fantasy world of Kung Fu heroes like Bruce Lee, Jacky Chan, Jet Li and Gordon Liu.
The exhibition’s curator, movie-poster collector and Los Angeles-based gallerist Ernie Wolfe III, calls these posters “crowd pullers.” They were not intended to drag art crowds to a Hong Kong gallery, though; they were hand-painted by Ghanaian artists exclusively for a domestic audience at the dawn of the digital technology era.
Set on the Gold Coast of Africa, the Republic of Ghana has always attracted merchants and traders from all around the world, thanks to its riches from diamonds, gold, petrol and natural gas. They brought with them a taste for action cinema from all the major movie industries: Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong. In the early 1980s, video recorders and VHS tapes reached the west coast of Africa. Ghana used the UK/European Pal broadcast system, which made it possible to broadcast imported videos from the then-British colony of Hong Kong. At the time, Hong Kong’s movie industry was at its peak, producing more than 200 films each year – a number that has since declined to just 50. Combined with Ghanian interest in martial arts and the seeds of a passion for kung fu films were planted.
There was just one problem: large off-set printing machines were not permitted in Ghana. It just wasn’t possible to promoting movies through the giant paper posters that covers the walls and billboards in most countries. Movie distributors had to resort to an ancestral means of production: hand painting. That led to a prolific and astonishing tradition of hand-painted movie posters, produced by Ghanaian artists solely for the pleasure of the local movie-viewing audience.
Each movie on a single tape was brought to the back roads and byways of Ghana with the help of “road-warrior entrepreneurs,” says Wolfe. “A mobile cinema was born.” Distributors from the capital city of Accra would make their way to country villages, screening movies with the help of a gas-powered generator, 20-inch TV, speakers and a VCR. Posters painted on recycled 50-kilo canvas flour sacks announced coming attractions. Villagers poured into the improvised venue. For people whose days normally ended at dusk, it was a delight – a festival outing in the company of people they would never meet.
These film paintings offered artists the opportunity to expand their repertoire beyond advertisements for barbershops and other commercial outlets. They celebrated heroes and places that they had never seen and could only experience through the medium of film. “Not uncommonly, these early golden age posters were filled with fantastical images that went far beyond anything actually depicted in the movie itself,” says Wolfe. Some of them were inspired by the artist’s previous recollections of a leading actor, or simply by their own interpretation of the movie’s subject. Competition was fierce. Often, it was not the movie but the poster itself that would bring in the crowds, so artists were proud to sign and date their unique productions. Master film poster painters specialised in specific genres. They hired apprentices.
One master was named D.A. Jasper. He usually painted traditional afterlife vehicles or fantasy coffins, which are sculptures carved from single pieces of wood, modelled after an animal or extravagant object favoured by the deceased, that will take their occupant into life beyond death. Wolfe has been travelling to Africa for 30 years, spending his time in the equatorial regions from coast to coast. Early on, he met Karie Kwei, a carpenter who worked on afterlife vehicles. Kwei introduced him to Jasper, who showed Wolfe his side business of painting movie posters. And so Wolfe’s collection was born.
For the film posters, Jasper applied his prowess for detail and accuracy to the muscles of his heroes and the rippling of their clothes. Wolfe says the fascination with muscles in the Ghanaian posters comes directly from Jasper and his obsession with body building. Stoger, Jasper’s younger brother and apprentice perpetrates the rippling effect (or “rippelocity” as named by Wolfe) in more vivid colours. By contrast, Africatta — a painter from Ghana’s interior, where artists had a style that differed from those on the coast — brings more fluidity and subdued colours to his renderings, although muscles and ripples still appear.
When new technology made printing more affordable in the late 1990s, hand-painted posters were not needed anymore. Some painters have become established artists, others refocused on their traditional work; some have done both. Nonetheless, they have left us a valuable legacy – in just ten years – of a completely free-spirited creation made for locals without the influence of any external trends.
Discover 32 Ghanaian posters at Hanart TZ Gallery from 11 March to 16 April. Opening Reception at 6 pm on March 11. For more information visit hanart.com.