All Hail! Hollywood As Religion in the Underground Cinemas of Ghana

A new exhibition of Ghanaian movie posters, snappily titled Baptized by Beefcake, showcases the unique merging of bombastic cinema action flicks and religion at a time when film-going relied on generators and entrepreneurial VHS distribution.

Artist: Ridwaas Arts Terminator 2, c. 1992 Via Ernie Wolfe Gallery
Ridwaas Arts, Terminator 2, c. 1992. Courtesy Ernie Wolfe Gallery

Aside from it undoubtedly having a nice ring to it, there’s a reason this show of Ghanaian posters (on display at Poster House, New York, until 5 January 2020) is titled Baptized by Beefcake. These images, promoting Hollywood features (and their “beefcake” stars), were about more than just car-chases and high-octane action: they were akin to a sort of religious experience for those who saw them.

The exhibition presents hand-painted work by twenty-two artists, who created images promoting Western movies that were showcased by hook or by crook in the face of economic turmoil in the country during the 1980s and 90s. The lack of traditional picture houses meant that a few entrepreneurial types developed an way of distributing Western videos: they hosted travelling film screenings with VHS players and TV sets, run on gas-powered generators, usually in locations that had been used as open-air places of worship for decades.

Aside from the locations, the notion of Hollywood as a thing to be worshipped is also evident in the images themselves: the graphics—bombastic and larger than life—often interweaved indigenous and Pentecostal symbology along with the usual signifiers of the movies themselves. Pop culture and religion became one thrilling union.

Artist: Alex Boateng Jason Goes to Hell, 1994 Via Ernie Wolfe Gallery
Alex Boateng, Jason Goes to Hell, 1994. Courtesy Ernie Wolfe Gallery

“The graphics—bombastic and larger than life—often interweaved indigenous and Pentecostal symbology”

These posters were hand-painted by local artists on cotton flour sacks; partly out of the fact that these were the means available, and partly because this medium meant that the posters could easily be rolled up to travel across the countryside along with the means by which the films were screened.

According to Poster House, which is currently exhibiting these posters, “By the turn of the century, tourists began taking notice of these extravagant posters and a new market, capitalizing on this interest and intended not for local audiences but for export, began to flood the market”. The images they’ve selected look to represent the “golden age” of these posters, before that shift towards the marketability of the posters. They’re beautiful in their unity of tradition, and the unique take these artists had on VHS box images, as “Rambo and the Terminator become messengers of moral ideologies.”




Baptized By Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana

Until 5 January 2020 at Poster House, New York

Artist: Muslim Kick Boxer, 1994 Via Ernie Wolfe Gallery