The ghoulish and the garish: Looking back at Ghana’s D.I.Y. film posters

The ghoulish and the garish: Looking back at Ghana’s D.I.Y. film posters

When Angelina Lippert landed the role of chief curator at Poster House, one of the first exhibitions she pitched to the museum’s board focused on handmade film advertisements from Ghana. The historian knew the works demonstrated all of the qualities that make studying posters a worthwhile endeavor. Aside from being accessible and attention-grabbing, they practically begged for deeper analysis, rewarding those who took a closer look with culturally rich symbolism and evidence of tradition.

“I wanted to do a show about them for quite some time,” Lippert said. “When you look at posters, you’re looking at things that touched people’s lives in intimate, sometimes small but significant ways.”

It took just a few months for Poster House, the first museum in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to posters, to stage an exhibition on the pieces. Titled “Baptized by Beefcake,” the show shines a light on artists who painted film posters by hand when printing presses were restricted in Ghana during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ridwaas Arts, "Terminator 2," c. 1992. Image via Ernie Wolfe Gallery.
Ridwaas Arts, “Terminator 2,” c. 1992. Image via Ernie Wolfe Gallery.

In a testament to their resourcefulness, artists utilized whatever materials proved most durable for the posters, often relying on used flour sacks as makeshift canvas. When finished with a piece, they would send it off to travel with a network of roaming cinemas. The ramshackle screenings moved from village to village, showing American and global films on VHS for rural communities without electricity.

 Alex Boateng, "Jason Goes to Hell," 1994. Image via Ernie Wolfe Gallery.
Alex Boateng, “Jason Goes to Hell,” 1994. Image via Ernie Wolfe Gallery.

“Think about something akin to the American traveling circus,” Lippert explained. “You have a guy with a van, a gas-powered generator, TV and VCR and a stack of VHS tapes. He rolls into town, sets up in a public place — typically an outdoor gathering space used for everything from religious services to weddings — and plays the film. Sometimes he could play the film five times in one day. Sometimes he’d play an array of films he had.”

“But,” she added, “once the audience was no longer interested, he’d move on to the next town.”

"Ghost" photograph of posters from Ernie Wolfe's book "Extreme Canvas 1." Image: Ola Baldych, via Poster House.
“Ghost” photograph of posters from Ernie Wolfe’s book “Extreme Canvas 1.” Image: Ola Baldych, via Poster House.

In many cases, artists hadn’t seen the movies they were creating promotional material for — a predicament that resulted in arguably the most creative and visually striking pieces in the presentation.

In a poster for the 1990 drama “Ghost,” a character played by Demi Moore is bracing herself against a wooden chair, the head of Whoopi Goldberg’s character visible inside her stomach. A poster for “Terminator” sticks closer to the script, showing a cartoonish and shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger toting a machine gun. A poster for “Splash,” the cult classic starring Daryl Hannah, features a golden-haired mermaid lounging on a sandy ocean shore.

"Splash" poster, 1990, unknown artist. Courtesy of Poster House.
“Splash” poster, 1990, unknown artist. Courtesy of Poster House.

“’Splash,’ in particular, has a lot of cultural resonance in Ghana,” Lippert said. “In much of West Africa, there is belief in a deity called Mami Wata. She physically resembles our concept of a mermaid, which is the central figure in this particular poster. If you look closely, you’ll see that Daryl Hannah’s face has been entirely worn away because passersby have touched her face reverentially — sort of the way that Catholics touch holy water when entering a church.”

Throughout the exhibition, Poster House has underscored how Ghana’s adherence to Pentecostalism may have informed artists’ interpretations of popular films. A mix of factors led the religion to swell in popularity during the 1970s and 1980s, just before the mobile cinemas began to flourish.

Photographs of posters from Ernie Wolfe's "Extereme Canvas 2", 2018. Image: Ola Baldych, via Poster House.
Photographs of posters from Ernie Wolfe’s “Extereme Canvas 2”, 2018. Image: Ola Baldych, via Poster House.

“If you look at Pentecostal sermons, the general arch is that you always have someone who is tested, who faces evil, and comes out victorious,” she said. “If that’s your baseline, then stories like ‘Terminator’ and ‘Rambo’ are quite appealing because they have all the pageantry and drama of one of these sermons, but way better special effects.”

That relationship may have helped some movies prove more popular with local audiences, Lippert noted.

“The fact that it underscores popular belief makes it more palatable, more familiar and more meaningful,” she said. “There are layers to these human dramas that hit a more relatable and real nerve in this context than they would in, say, Los Angeles.”

‘Baptized by Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana’ is now showing at Poster House through Feb. 16

Top Image: Detail of a poster featured in "Baptized by Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana," on view at Poster House.