Blood and Guts:An exhibit of outrageous hand-painted West African movie posters at Trinity

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Bold, Raw & Uncensored: Ghanaian Movie Posters
Through March 16, Widener Gallery, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford, (860) 297-5232, trincoll.edu

Corpse-like zombies. Severed heads. Frightening hybrid man-beast monstrosities. Hovering angels poised to deliver grace or judgment. Men and women with kabuki-like expressions of exaggerated rage and shock. Snakes coming out of human bodies. People vomiting money. These are some of the recurring surreal images in the exhibit Bold, Raw and Uncensored: Ghanaian Movie Posters on view through March 16 at Trinity College’s Widener Gallery. The show features hand-painted posters — mostly made in the 80s and 90s — advertising movies from Ghana and Nigeria.

The paintings, collected by Michelle Gilbert, an anthropologist and visiting associate professor in art history at Trinity, are basically the equivalent of an advertisement for the latest Chuck Norris or Harry Potter flick. Except these are hand-painted, many of them on material from flour sacks (the info from the former contents can be seen under the paint on a few examples).

West Africa has a thriving movie culture, nearly as big as those in India and the U.S. And sometimes the movies are a place where pop culture, mass media, folk art and traditional belief systems all jam up against each other, as this little show captures perfectly. In the cases of Nigeria and Ghana, where the films for these posters were made, there’s also the confluence of thriving Pentecostal Christian churches, many of which preach a kind of prosperity theology that often teaches that god rewards the faithful with monetary wealth. And those storylines, as well as the tension between traditional religion and Christianity, play out in the popular film culture.

As Gilbert, who lives in Guilford, writes in an explanatory pamphlet essay that goes with the show, these images are meant to be shocking and alarming. “It is not an aesthetic of the ugly,” she writes. “Rather, it depicts disorder.” Depictions of torture, obscenity and supernatural monsters convey the struggles that are the tension that fuels the films.

These images — many of which were simply hand-painted copies from the video cassette covers — were made in the service of promoting the commercial showing of a movie, at urban social clubs, video centers, open-roofed cinemas and in family houses, as Gilbert writes. But the paintings have a kind of jolting energy that also captivates non-African eyes, similar to the appeal of vibrant and idiosyncratic outsider art. A poster for Blood Money depicts a man-beast (a cross-legged human body with praying hands, topped with a chicken’s head, which happens to be spitting money) sitting atop bundles of cash. As Gilbert explains, the films deal with witchcraft and ill-gotten gains. And the imagery is captivating.

If you were to boil the plots of the standard Hollywood films down, you’d probably end up with some combination of boy-meets-girl and superhero-saves-us-from-calamity. It’s all pretty predictable, and the stories that moviemakers belch up for us to consume obviously say something about America’s hopes and fears. So too do these West African movie posters reveal a lot about popular culture in Ghana and Nigeria today. Bold Raw and Uncensored is eye-catching because of the outrageous images, but the paintings also offer a glimpse into a movie culture that — like our own — is a hyperactive dream machine that churns out fantastic stories, some shocking, some tacky.

Gilbert, who spoke to the Advocate last week by phone, said that — unlike the tension between Hollywood and the church in America — many of these movies served as a kind of didactic tool for religious instruction in Ghana. “Some of these films are written by pentecostal priests and some of them are shown in evangelical churches,” says Gilbert.

The era of hand-painted movie posters in Ghana is largely over though. Gilbert said the paintings flourished for about a decade. Many of the painters work as sign painters and they simply moved on to painting shop signs for barbers and tailors or executing the elaborate designs seen on the backs of many taxis and trucks.

“This was a short-lived thing for these popular videos,” says Gilbert. “As far as I know, there isn’t the same genre of posters anyplace else. Why that happened, I don’t know.”

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