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Out of Africa, Lurid Coming Attractions

Hand-painted on flour sacks, movie posters from Ghana capture a brief--and quirky--cultural moment.

February 25, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

From Mexican papier ma^che to Peruvian ceramics, Japanese textiles and American "muffler men" created in L.A. auto repair shops, the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History has presented a mind-boggling, eye-popping, globe-trotting variety of art and artifacts since it opened in 1992. But there has never been an exhibition quite like the current attraction, "Death-Stalking, Sleep-Walking, Barbarian Ninja Terminators: Hand-Painted Movie Posters From Ghana."

Loaded with lurid images of impossibly muscular young men toting automatic weapons, martial arts heroes making all the right moves and scantily clad women in the clutches of monsters, the show consists of 72 one-of-a-kind advertisements for films. Most of the movies are American, and their titles and stars will be familiar to aficionados of action, horror and kung fu genres. But the posters--painted by hand on flour sacks--represent a little-known art form, which ran its course in about 10 years, from the mid-1980s to the mid-'90s, in Ghana.

"These posters were part of a mobile film distribution system, where guys with VCRs and TV monitors and little gas generators would travel around Ghana and take movies into the countryside," says Ernie Wolfe III, a Los Angeles-based African-art dealer and collector. Wolfe saw his first Ghanaian movie poster in 1991, amassed a collection of them during the next few years, loaned works to the exhibition and published a book on the subject.

Working for companies with unlikely names--Pal Mal, Ziggy, Bombay, Princess and Rolls Royce--the distributors "would unfurl these paintings, nail them up on a wall and that would be the beginning of a movie marathon," Wolfe says. "Then they would roll up the paintings, throw them on top of the bus and head off to the next town. Some of the paintings have broken down and become like babies' blankets, they are so soft."

The makeshift enterprise began with the widespread introduction of foreign videocassettes into Ghana in the mid-1980s, Wolfe says. To drum up business, the distributors commissioned local artists to create portable advertisements for the films. Paper wasn't durable enough, so the artists began painting on the cheapest cloth they could find. Most of the posters are painted in oil and acrylic on 50-kilo flour sacks, which have been split open and spliced into 42-by-66-inch rectangles.

"One reason the posters are so interesting is that they are so varied," Wolfe says. "They were created without any context whatsoever. The artists came up with images that were often completely from their imagination. They didn't have to see the movie to make the poster. They wanted people to get excited, so everything is exaggerated. But at the same time, the scenarios they create are visual narratives; they are very complex and effective."

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Although African sculpture is widely admired and often cited as an influence on European and American art, African painting is little known and relatively few historical examples have survived. African artists paint on rocks and walls, and some who are currently active paint signs for barbershops and other businesses. But Wolfe views the movie posters as "the first example of utility-based painting on canvas and the first paintings to tell big stories."

The art form died out in the mid-'90s as the video boom grew, he says. "By then, there were more film distributors and more movie titles than local artists could produce posters for. Also, the people who came to watch the movies were much more sophisticated after 10 years. They didn't need this elaborate signage. A chalkboard with the name of the picture and the show time was sufficient." Mass-produced paper posters also came into vogue and replaced the flour-sack paintings, he says.

The show is a natural extension of the Fowler's program, says Doran Ross, director of the museum and curator of the exhibition. "I have been building the popular painting collection here for a long time, and we have done at least five exhibitions on popular painting in Ghana in the 20 years I have been here."

Ross credits Wolfe with "rescuing the posters from oblivion," but says the genre grew out of a rich West African tradition of advertising and props made for groups of traveling entertainers--most notably all-night theatrical and musical productions known as concert parties.

"That's part of our interest in the movie posters," Ross says. "But we are also very much interested in the whole process of globalization. These posters are a prime example of how Hong Kong meets Bombay meets Hollywood in southern Ghana. The disproportionate number of Hollywood posters probably reflects the reality, but Indian movies and Hong Kong action pictures are popular in Ghana as well."

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