The West African nation of Ghana is home to a subculture of artists who create outlandish versions of popular Hollywood movie posters. The art form was at its peak in the nation during the 1980s and 1990s, commonly referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Movie Posters’. During this time, artists would let their imagination run wild in order to create posters that would never fail to draw audiences to Africa’s dilapidated cinema halls. So they used their artistic license to add weapons, scenes and characters that didn’t even exist in the original movie!
The art form began to lose momentum in the 2000s, when Ghanaians purchased their own TVs and VCRs, causing several movie houses to close down. But over time, the lurid hand-painted posters have only increased in value. In fact, several Western art collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for them. Some of the artists who have been out of work for several years are now finding a new lease of life in reproducing posters of more recent movies for art aficionados.
One such artist is 39-year-old Jeaurs Oka Afutu, who started making posters on the streets when he was only 14 years old. He now works from home, painting posters for art dealers who buy them for anywhere between $75 and $100 apiece. He applies his imagination to the canvas, often placing dripping knives in the hands of zombie assassins or guns at the ready for various heroes who didn’t even have weapons in the original film. His paintings come across as surreal, and some critics remarked that they are often far better than the films. Most of the times, he makes paintings without having seen the movie!
Last fall, Jeaurs painted a poster for the 1996 movie ‘Mars Attacks!’ on a flour-sack canvas at his home. He added guns, explosions, a bikini-clad woman with a dog’s head and other motifs that weren’t there in the original poster. His poster for Rambo includes dramatic scenes that don’t even appear in the movie. “You do the movie,” he said. “But you have to add action. Action and war works a lot, and women too – both actually. It all depends on what the audience prefers.”
Ernie Wolfe, an African art dealer who began noticing these movie posters in the early 1990s, said that the artists often have a very specific idea of the effect they were trying to create. “They are definitely very, very good artists and they paint exactly what they want,” he said. Wolfe admires their work so much that he has written two books on the genre – Extreme Canvas and Extreme Canvas 2. “Having looked at hundreds of them, you become aware of their individual hand, their idiosyncrasies and their brush strokes,” he added.
“The best of the Golden Age movie posters – from the ‘80s to the ‘90s – are the ones where they just completely went out into the land where there are no rules,” Wolfe explained. “It gave them an incredible freedom to be expressive. They made images that they knew would bring people in and no one was looking over their shoulder to tell them they couldn’t do anything. Their job was to be crowd-pullers. Whatever it took, they made images that would excite people and make them want to get off the bus, park their bike, whatever it was, and go to a cinema club.” The only restriction they had was the size of the canvas – there were only two versions, one side of a 50kg flour bag or two sides stitched together. “Apart from that, there were no limits,” he said.
According to Wolfe, the works also represent art where the evidence of their original purpose is also a part of the narrative. “The work patterns of their use; having been nailed up by their corners and splattered by mud from passing buses also tell a rich story about how they were utilised.”
Vintage Golden Age posters routinely go for anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000, and a fake market has emerged as well. But Wolfe prefers not to call them fakes, instead referring to them as ‘a homage’. “There’s a big difference between those works that were produced for them, Ghanaians, and the ones that are produced for us, collectors,” he added.