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"Movie Mojo: Painted Posters from Ghana (review)"

A review of Movie Mojo, an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center of painted movie posters from Ghana. Published by A.V. Club Chicago. (Thumbnail photo courtesy of A.V. Club Chicago)

Zombified corpses have invaded the Chicago Cultural Center. The Center’s new exhibit, Movie Mojo: Hand-Painted Posters from Ghana features the morbid – hunks of demon flesh and dog maulings – but also the fantastical faces of the stars of Big Trouble in Little China.

The exhibition focuses on the colorful and bloody array of film posters from the West African nation of Ghana. Many of these feature homegrown “Nollywood” movies made there and in nearby Nigeria but some American B-level action and horror movies creep in as well.

These posters are vividly colorful, hand-painted advertisements used to lure Ghanaians into makeshift video centers erected in the country throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. During this time, wily African entrepreneurs would travel from town to town with generators and AV equipment, bringing with them reels of sordid, gory stories of redemption and modern sin. Before the showings, they would commission artists to hand-paint lurid, splashy scenes from these flicks on the back of old flour bags. Oh, by the way, many of the artists had never even seen the movies in question.

This makes for some bombastic imagery – scenes of men being attacked by cauldron-wielding shamans and demonic she-wolves donning golden bustiers. Artists incorporate local lore and mythology into these works as well. The infamous possessed tree woman god appears in two separate posters: one for Evil Thing and Evil Tree. Whether or not this is the iteration of the same movie about Voodoo fauna is up for debate.

The tendency to take liberties and play up the occult as well as the gruesome doesn’t end there. Even among all of the body slicing and bludgeoning, the poster for Dead Mary seems to take the red velvet cake. A demon creature splits a kneeling woman in two with an axe. She is perfectly vertically halved, a bloody line of entrails segmenting her body from teased hair to the hem of her high-waisted jeans.

Two more posters of interest are the nearly identical advertisements for the movie Baracuda. A Michelle Obama lookalike hovers ominously over green monsters, zapping them with her pointy lightning fingers and red laser eyes. The poster duo is pretty similar but likely painted by a different artist. This begs the question, was one copied or somehow replicated or is this a matter of Ghanaian collective consciousness?

Even the posters for different movies seem strikingly similar in many grisly and supernatural aspects. There’s the ever-present decapitation trend, gnarled limbs and weeping flesh wounds. Titular irony also abounds. The poster for a movie entitled Wonderful Dog displays man’s best friend mutilating a confused man clutching an umbrella. An ad for No More War shows a shaman with a knife hovering over a decapitated noggin. A cauldron bubbles forebodingly in the background. No more war indeed.

Thankfully, Movie Mojo contains a constructed facsimile of a Ghanaian video center so we can see just what these movies are all about. Yes, there is blood, bile and witchcraft but the posters are, as expected, a bit hyperbolic and ambitious. I Married a Witch is just one Nollywood feature that gets partially shown here along with two others.

Many of these movies seem to deal with the uncomfortable juncture of Christianity and indigenous faith. The native or “occult” beliefs usually are shown in a macabre context with much ado about spears and brutal medicine men. Married, for example, centers around the cautionary tale of a young Christian man who gets roped into matrimony with, you guessed it, a woman with a fancy for black magic. Later, a swarm of cackling zombie women in magenta robes attempt to wrangle his spirit for their own evil doings. This thriller can be viewed in its entirety on the old YouTube if the sampling piques your interest.

Movie Mojo is a testament to not only Ghana’s cinematic tastes but also the changing face of Westernization on the African continent. The art of hand-painted movie posters has dwindled there, shoved aside by ads featuring offset printing and still photos. The posters’ pulp appeal is obvious. A website (http://www.ghanamovieposters.com/servlet/StoreFront not at all affiliated with this exhibit) even hawks the more Westernized versions of them, asking for hundreds of dollars a pop.

Mojo’s cultural cinematic mash-up makes for social commentary as much as it makes for fun viewing. But get ready for guts; it gets pretty bloody in there. This exhibit runs from April 30-September 4 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Admission is free.

Movie Mojo: Painted Posters from Ghana (review)