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Movie Mojo's Hand-Painted Movie Art From Ghana Packs A Punch

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on May 4, 2011 7:20PM

Do not insult the fifty or so works hanging on the walls at the 4th floor exhibit hall of the Cultural Center by calling them "movie posters." These vivid oils, painted on the back of opened up and stretched-out flour sacks, hand-painted rather than mass-produced and thus free from the crippling dilution of corporate marketing and the homogenized pseudo-perfection of the photoshop era, do more than advertise a product. With images so urgent that they seem to vibrate on the wall, these pieces demand your attention and threaten not to give it back.

They have their origins in the 1980s, when a few enterprising West African businessmen loaded up a collection of VHS tapes, a television and a portable generator and brought the magic of cinema to the villages of rural Ghana whose populations had very little access to it. To promote their wares (films from Hollywood, Bollywood blockbusters, Kung Fu and action movies from Asia, and West African cinema) these entrepreneurs commissioned artists to paint advertisements for the films. Whether the artist had seen the movie and could paint something from hsi or her memory of it, or a VHS cover was available to provide a jumping off point, or the title alone was the inspiration, the images had to be compelling enough to entice an audience with only a budding familiarity with the shorthands of generic conventions movie advertisments are so prone to in the west.

These works first took hold of us in Primitive's booth at Art Chicago this weekend, where a handful were hanging. Simultaneous exhibits of Primitive's collection are now on display at their fourth floor gallery and at the Cultural Center, and we cannot recommend it highly enough.

The raw vitality of the color and imagery is at first overwhelming. But beyond the a lexicon of sex and violence which recalls the fantasyscapes of aggression on the covers of pulp novels, the fascinating, mysterious tropes from regional lore pop up again and again: spell-bearing lightning bolts emanating from fingers, lots of snakes, and references to Mami Wata , along with an energetic tension between Christian morality and traditional African religious imagery. While the overall technique at first strikes us with the naivete associated in the West with folk or outsider art, many of the artists exhibit a sophisticated technique often in contrast to an invigorating freedom from forced perspective. A playfulness of composition foregrounds the symbolic components of the imagery rather than attempting to depict a representative scene from the movie itself. The result creates a burning desire to immediately watch the unknown movies and a knowing, humorous laugh at the lack of faithfulness in the art for the familiar titles (when did Dracula get three faces?)

As an added treat, video from three of the African movies referred to by the posters is running in a continuous loop as well, offering the chance to compare the advertisement with the reality. The exhibit runs all summer, but we suggest you get there as soon as you can. Two gallery talks for the exhibit are on the calendar, one from educator Kweku Embil on June 16 and another from Chief Curator of Exhibitions Lanny Silverman on July 21. Additionally, three films with posters in the exhibition will be screened at the Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater: 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Bram Stoker's Dracula and King Kong Vs. Godzilla.

Movie Mojo: Hand-Painted Posters from Ghana runs through September 4 at the Chicago Cultural Center Exhibit Hall, 76 E Washington St. and at Primitive, 130 North Jefferson St.