Once a great art form, the movie poster has become increasingly interchangeable and generic over recent years – not only the same artwork used globally when previously each market would have its own unique imagery, but often utterly bland and boring photographic imagery that looks like everything else out there. Things used to be very different, and nowhere were posters quite as different than in Ghana, where traditional film distribution was often an alien concept, and films would instead be shown by travelling exhibitors who would roll into towns and villages with video tapes and projectors, and promote their movies with hand painted, unique posters that were big on hype and sensationalism, all the better to pull in an audience of thrill seekers who might know nothing about the actual film.
The recent exhibition at the Brunei Gallery of SOAS University, African Gaze, brought one hundred of these jaw dropping posters, huge affairs painted on canvas by a handful of hard working and unpretentious artists – a weird mix of commercial advertising and outsider art. The films ranged from big budget American action films to low-budget horror; Italian films from directors like Lucio Fulci; Hong Kong martial arts movies; and a lot of locally made Hollywood movies that had some of the most outrageous imagery of all the posters, promising far more sex, violence and excess than these poverty row productions could ever possibly deliver on.
The Western movies represented here are either curiously accurate yet crude reconstructions of the original poster art – you can just about recognise Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and the artwork for movies like Species is weirdly familiar yet not quite right. Sometimes, the imagery is downright weird – a recreation of the artwork for Splash transforms Daryl Hannah into a David Duchovny lookalike, for instance. Other times, the artwork is entirely, thrillingly unique, tangentially related to the actual movie yet offering thrills that it couldn’t hope to deliver – Leprechaun 3, for instance, has the titular character gnawing on a severed arm and an eyeball. Jurassic Park has a bizarre looking dinosaur biting the head off a hapless man. You wish that the actual films could live up to this extraordinary hype.
And because these posters were created for individual exhibitors rather than film distributors, movies could have several different posters, or the same artwork could be reworked for different films. The only consistency was the use of vivid colour, outrageous exaggeration and increasing weirdness, all designed to pull in an audience that didn’t read movie magazines and probably had no idea what any of the films actually were.
How legal the distribution of these movies was is open to question, but there was clearly a thirst for sensationalist cinema in Ghana throughout the 1980s. This fly-by-night distribution method and the ad hoc, hand made posters that were used to promote the films would now seem to be a thing of the past, though. That is a sad loss to both art and cinema.