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KUNG FU IN AFRICA: Golden Age Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana (1985-1999)

Exhibition details

Opening / Event Date:
11 March, 2016
Time:
6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Closing / End Date:
16 April, 2016
Event Category:

Opening Reception
Friday, 11 March 2016, 6 to 8pm

Master African artisan-painters
Joe Mensah, Leonardo, Death is Wonder, Alex Nkrumah Boateng, D.A. Jasper, Stoger, Bright Obeng, Gilbert Forson, Samuel, Dan Nyenkumah, Africatta, Babs, Muslim

Curated by
Ernie Wolfe III

Hanart TZ Gallery
401 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, HK

 

Hanart TZ Gallery and Ernie Wolfe Gallery, Los Angeles are pleased to present ‘KUNG FU IN AFRICA: Golden Age Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana (1985-1999)’, a selection of 32 of the most outstanding examples of the unique genre of hand-painted movie posters by master African artisan-painters from Ghana, curated by Los Angeles-based specialist Ernie Wolfe III.

The exhibition, which opens on 11 March 2016 at Hanart TZ Gallery, features the work of Joe Mensah, Leonardo, Death is Wonder, Alex Nkrumah Boateng, D.A. Jasper, Stoger, Bright Obeng, Gilbert Forson, Samuel, Dan Nyenkumah, Africatta, Babs, Muslim.

This exhibition presents a rare and singular perspective on China through these artists’ interpretations of martial arts as both an aesthetic language and a dynamic life force. The pan-humanic appeal of martial arts is embodied in the wonderfully diverse yet thematically linked images created by these artists in a unique kind of folk-pop style, focused on the activity of Kung Fu. Through the martial arts film industry, which began in Hong Kong in the 1970s with famed production houses like the Shaw Brothers, Kung Fu cinema became a worldwide phenomenon—reaching even audiences in rural Ghana. Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Gordon Liu, all became celebrities to African audiences with their star performances in martial arts movies.

 
Curatorial Essay

KUNG FU IN AFRICA: Back Home In Hong Kong
Ernie Wolfe III

Starting in about 1985, and continuing until just before the millennium, there existed a ‘Golden Age’ of hand-painted, imagination-driven movie posters in Ghana. This was a time when market forces from abroad were minimal and these unique and exotic paintings were created solely for the local Ghanaian movie-viewing audience. The best and brightest artists of a generation competed fiercely and directly in the public eye to produce this exciting new work, being careful to sign and date the great majority of their paintings. Their hand-made artistry stood its ground against the inevitable tide of printing technology that globalization thrust upon them, and for a short while, they carved out a small oasis in time, where man actually won out over machines.

Cinema from abroad was brought to the back roads and byways of Ghana with the help of bus-riding, road-warrior entrepreneurs, and a mobile cinema tradition was born. In the early years, a big city distributor or his aide would roll into town with a portable gas-powered generator, a 20” TV monitor, speakers, a VCR, and stunning, hand-painted movie posters and begin the local version of a movie marathon. By day, this would generally occur within the confines of a family home or possibly some small communal meeting centre; by night, in the open air. Later on the movies might be seen in the context of a video club. Painted on cloth, often on recycled flour sacks, rolled up on a stick or dowel for ease of transportation and as a counterweight when unfurled at the roadside, these early painted movie posters are the physical vestiges of this now obsolete art form, created for high visibility and mobility, unique in all of Africa to Ghana.

KUNG FU IN AFRICA presents a carefully curated selection of 32 of the most outstanding examples of these hand-painted Golden Age movie posters, by 13 largely self-taught master artisan painters from Ghana, each with his own distinctive voice and style. This exhibition presents a rare and singular perspective on China through the artists’ interpretations of martial arts as both an aesthetic language and a dynamic life force. The pan-humanic appeal of martial arts is embodied in their wonderfully diverse yet thematically linked images, which focus on the activity of kung fu. Through the martial arts film industry that began in Hong Kong in the 1970s with famed production houses like the Shaw Brothers, kung fu cinema became a worldwide phenomenon—reaching even to audiences in rural Ghana. Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Gordon Liu, all became celebrities to African audiences with their star performances in martial arts movies.

These movie poster paintings, representing what can be described as an African folk-pop style, emerged during a decade in which globalization in the specific form of martial arts movies brought the opportunity to these talented Ghanaian painters to celebrate heroes whose worlds were completely different from their own, and conceivable only through the medium of film. What is more, this was a direct Hong Kong-to-Africa transmission, without any kind of Western filtering.

I consider these Golden Age movie posters to be the visual equivalent of neon signage, but without the benefit of electricity. Whether viewed from a passing bus, through swirling dust at forty miles per hour, or studied from a distance of five feet on the side of the road, the imagery in these posters is undeniably arresting. Not uncommonly, these early Golden Age posters were filled with fantastical images that went far beyond anything actually depicted in the movie itself.

Many of the Golden Age artists considered it unnecessary to see a particular film before creating their imagination-driven, idiosyncratic images. These colourful, highly stylized poster paintings were known locally as ‘crowd-pullers’, and sometimes were inspired solely by the artists’ accumulated knowledge of the leading actor, or by their own interpretation of the subject of the film, or even just by its vibe. Thus the artists’ imagination, rather than the movie itself, became the driving force behind their imagery. Their pride of creation is underscored by the inclusion of dates and signatures on the great majority of even the earliest movie poster paintings.

The reign of this group of Golden Age artists ended quite precipitously in the late 1990s, when their hand-painted poster monopoly was challenged by competing technologies brought to Ghana in the wake of increasing globalization. It did not take long for the proliferation of ephemera in the form of cheaper, smaller, offset-printed paper posters to replace them. People were eager to go to the movies and ultimately an absolute minimum of visual agitation was necessary to lure them in. The Ghanaian public would gladly see nearly any movie rather than the alternative, which might be just another night watching the sunset through the mango trees.

I am very interested in the intercultural conversations generated by these images of Chinese martial arts films painted by Ghanaian artists for their local audience. It is unlikely that the Chinese film makers ever intended or imagined that their films would be seen in Ghana; or that these artists in Ghana ever considered that not only the images they created, but also the actual art work itself would have a chance to be seen in the culture where the movies that so inspired them were produced. Wow!

It is extremely gratifying to see this beautiful bit of ‘continental convergence’ celebrated in an exhibition at Hong Kong’s preeminent Hanart TZ Gallery. I believe it has always been my job to help artworks from other lands and cultures realize their potential as cross-cultural ambassadors and, in this way, remind us of the commonalities that exist between our disparate worlds.

 

 

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