Before movie posters were glossy, Photoshopped creations featuring recycled tropes of giant heads floating in negative space and text superimposed over faces, they were hand-painted objets d'art. If you're a movie buff, you know this—from the minimal hard lines of Saul Bass to the avant-garde imagery of Czech posters, designers once had an enviable imagination and the visual storytelling chops to entice a movie-going audience. Which is why the Bowers Museum's current exhibit "Reel Art" is so incredible; focusing on obscure 1990s-era film posters from Ghana, the collection's outlandish, campy brilliance reminds us of the exciting adventures audiences hope to experience, only filtered through an outrageous painting style.
The title "Reel Art" refers to a film reel as well as the hope these posters will be recognized as real art, which at that point was limited to fine sculptures and carvings. They are artifacts of the so-called golden age of Ghana's movie poster art that happened during the booming video-club craze from the mid-'80s to the new millennium and were created with oil paint by town muralists on 50-kilo sacks of flour. Promising excitement, intrigue and drama, these posters reflect the artists' interpretations of the films' subject matters and dive deep into the fantastical with ninjas, gangsters, supernatural beings and monsters. Artists such as Joe Mensah—considered the pioneer of the form and who taught others like him—Socrates, Jones, Sowwy, King, Samuel Art and others originated this wave of stylistic art that was both functional and graphically engaging, shaping the medium for generations after them.
According to the exhibit's notes and to Ghanaian movie-poster expert Ernie Wolfe III, the posters were central to the country's up-and-coming mobile video-rental system, in which traveling salesmen trekked to small villages throughout Ghana and Kenya to rent out VHS tapes and TV/sound equipment and screen local movie marathons of A- to Z-grade genre flicks starring big names such as Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger and their low-budget counterparts such as Lorenzo Lamas, Billy Blanks and Cynthia Rothrock. Whatever the film was about, discerning viewers would base their decision to rent a film on their fascination with the poster art.
Movies were usually rented for home viewing or—as was often the case—community screenings. And those screenings were poppin'. As Wolfe writes in his book Extreme Canvas, considered the quintessential book on Ghanaian movie posters, "The kids who regularly attend the Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show around the corner from my gallery in West Los Angeles certainly have nothing on the Nairobi locals when it comes to audience participation."
The heyday of video-rental clubs has passed, and collectors have bought many of the film posters for their own enjoyment, among them Chapman University donors Jay and Helen Lavely. The Lavelys, who have lent to similar exhibits of Ghanaian movie posters around the country, gifted nearly 40 posters to the Bowers' permanent collection, most of which is now on display at the Bowers' Susan and Steven Chandler Gallery. Showing some obvious wear and tear, obscure crime thrillers such as Cyborg Cop, Killer Instinct and Once a Thief are depicted with outrageous sensationalism (for instance, the Once a Thief poster has an explosion, while the movie does not). Rippling muscles, disproportionate figures and bright colors abound, the appropriate video club's name is painted in a corner, and the artist signing off his artwork on the material is akin to a graffiti artist signing a street mural. They're uniquely raw and energetic, and as director Walter Hill writes in a chapter for Extreme Canvas, "Many of these posters are more interesting than the films."
It might take a certain kind of person to appreciate these posters beyond their gawdy aesthetic, but one thing is undeniable: their flair for crystallizing the broad appeal of movie escapism. "It's a universal kind of trait that people love stories and being excited about legends and that kind of diversion," says Bowers curator Victoria Gerard. "These posters were made with a Ghana audience in mind. . . . Even though we relate to these images in one way, the people in Ghana might have related to them another way based on some cultural context, but the main message is the same."
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Audiences can catch "Reel Art" until June 4, when Wolfe himself will be giving a lecture on West African film-poster art and the artists in the show, many of which he had the privilege of knowing. While Ghanaian film posters are still being painted in the vein of their progenitors today, Gerard notes, "what you really notice is that the quality of the craftsmanship is not the same."
"Reel Art: Movie Posters From Ghana" at the Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through June 4. $10-$25; children younger than 12, free; Ernie Wolfe III lecture, June 4, 1:30 p.m. $9-$12.