Blood, Guts, Kitsch!
Our new obsession is this collection of Ghanaian movie-posters now on view at New York's Poster House.
Alex Boateng, Freejack (Detail), 1992, Oil on canvas
Droplets of garish blood spatter across a handmade poster promoting Children of the Corn 3: Urban Harvest; Rambo smokes a tiny cigarette while an enormous cobra rears over his head, ready to attack. The most captivating art show in New York right now might just be the one that features amazingly bonkers renditions of 1980s horror and action film art, all rendered on repurposed flour sacks by Ghanaian artists who had sharpened their chops by painting advertisements for local barbershops. Their thrillingly eccentric visions are the subject of a new show, “Baptized by Beefcake,” on view at New York’s Poster House through January 5, 2020.
As Poster House chief curator Angelina Lippert explains it, these wild, commercial artworks are the direct product of the political and religious undercurrents bubbling up from the nation’s founding in 1957. Ghana was a very observant, primarily Pentacostalist country, and its media operated under the government’s thumb for many years. Everything that was produced reflected the prevailing Christian fervor. “You have two generations of people growing up where all media is religious,” Lippert tells me. “Then suddenly—the laws loosen, and you have this ability to get Western films.”
Beginning in the 1980s VHS tapes were imported and traded among friends and family, with schlocky horror and action flicks crash-landing in Ghana’s devout culture. Intrepid touring companies arose, bringing a D.I.Y. screening room to small towns and cities across the country. “You’d get in your creepy stranger-danger van with a VHS player, a television, and a gas-powered generator,” Lippert explains, with the hand-painted advertisements there to draw a crowd. “[The posters] would travel for years, which is why you see a lot of wear. A lot of them were repaired with jeans, or pieces of other posters. When the poster’s life cycle ended, they’d go and become floor mats or curtains in homes.” (All of the examples in “Baptized by Beefcake” were collected and conserved by co-curator Ernie Wolfe III, who acquired them while living in Africa during the ‘80s and ‘90s).
Unsurprisingly, local audiences chose to view these narratives through their own lens. "Terminator is like a Jesus story, a guy coming to save the world from its own doom,” Lippert surmises. Meanwhile, the Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze vehicle Ghost is interpreted through the Ghanaian trope of the “revenge ghost.” Ramshackle film screenings, Lippert explains, were often hosted in spaces normally used for religious ceremonies; the audiences, she says, interacted boisterously with the film’s narrative, as they would during a Pentecostalist service.
What’s most fascinating about these posters are the moments when the artists choose to diverge from the VHS art they were appropriating from. Despite being advertisements intended for an African audience, black characters, she tells me, are occasionally eliminated from the compositions—or rendered as white people. Sometimes, the reverse is true: a black James Bond or Captain America. In a poster for the latter movie, the artist interjects a bit of fraught Ghanaian architecture: the familiar forms of slave castles on the country’s coast. “They have the bad guy a real bad-guy house that meant something to a local,” Lippert says.
A hand painted poster for Splash also contains a whole history of Ghanaian belief and ritual, though it’s easy to miss. Daryl Hannah’s half-woman, half-fish character, Lippert tells me, had a corollary in Ghana with the figure of the Mami Wata, “a mermaid who lives under the sea, has treasure, and will make you beautiful if you worship her.” At first glance, the poster on view here simply looks ill-preserved. “Hannah’s face is totally worn away,” Lippert notes. “That’s the reverential touching—the way that Catholics touch holy water when they go into a church, [Ghanaians] were touching her face in worship as they walked by. These posters aren’t just art objects—they’re artifacts of a very specific time.”