Mermaids, Serpents and Action Heroes: Ghanaian Hand-painted Movie Posters

Collection of Ernie Wolfe, III

January 9 – February 9, 2006

  • Reception: Thursday, January 12, 6-8 p.m., Gallery Lounge
  • Gallery Talk by Dana Rush at 7 p.m.
  • Special Acoustic Show by AlmaAfroBeatEnsemble after gallery talk


poster imagesThe posters in this exhibition are a result of mobile cinemas that brought mainstream movies to rural populations of Ghana. Local artists, often painting the posters before viewing the features themselves, had only the accompanying tape jackets to help them create imaginative advertisements of American, Indian, Hong Kong and African cinema. The results are extraordinary. Explorations into the influence of contemporary culture, these works of art combine global impressions with local ideology to visibly celebrate and acknowledge cinema as a cultural driving force.

Los Angeles gallery owner and collector Enie Wolfe, III, who has loaned over 20 works to the Parkland Art Gallery, is the author of “Extreme Canvases: Hand-painted Movie Posters from Ghana.” In his acknowledgements he writes: “Growing up in Los Angeles, Hollywood and the movies have always loomed large in my life…..the very grandeur of Hollywood and its classic theaters often made moviegoing a rather elaborate and formal event. I am therefore grateful to have later learned that sitting in the sand at an outdoor theater in Africa is an equally fulfilling and valid way to experience the universal themes and emotions that make the movies a truly global phenomenon.”

The introduction of the hand-painted movie posters began in the mid 1980s. Signed and dated by the artist, earlier posters were made from sewing together two recycled 50-kilo flour sacks and were later replaced by locally made canvas. These advertisements serve as a legacy for this portable theater phenomenon that began with entrepreneurs traveling on the road with television monitors, videocassettes, VCRs, and portable gas powered generators. Continuing through the early 1990’s these mobile cinemas were quickly replaced with more permanent local venues that serve as theaters. Posters continued to be commissioned as they traveled with the rented videocassettes but have now been largely replaced by mass-produced posters from the film industry. Included in this exhibition are movie posters painted by artists Dallas, Leonardo, Heavy J, Forsom, Joe Mensah, Sunil Shetti, Sowwy, Blank Art, and Death Is Wonder among others. These artists, largely unknown, exhibit a creativity and richness to the largely unheralded tradition of two-dimensional art in Africa. Movie posters in the exhibition are for “Clash of The Titans,” “Commando,” “Mad Max,” “Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow,” “Manda vs. Kung Fu,” “Splash,” “The Matrix,” and “Terminator 2,” among others.

Dana Rush, Assistant Professor in Art History at the University of Illinois, will give a gallery talk on the night of the opening at 7 p.m. She will discuss the symbolic representation of Mami Wata, a water-spirit that emerges within many of the posters. Found throughout the western coastal regions of Africa, this spirit is commonly described as a mermaid figure and sometimes takes the form of many elusive disguises, including a serpent or a seductive woman. In contemporary Ghanaian culture, Mami Wata serves as a symbol of modern temptations, the desire for material wealth and the complications that arise from both having and wanting material wealth.

Members of the local musical group Alma Afro Beat Ensemble will give an acoustical performance after the Gallery Talk. Aaron Feder, one of the musicians and part-time faculty at Parkland College, explained that this performance will be a toned-down performance for the art gallery. While Alma Afro Beat Ensemble is largely influenced by Nigerian music, Feder feels that the group’s music is a good example of how music’s contemporary influence is on a global level.