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Art Basel 2016

Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Chow Yun-fat as you’ve never seen them before

Posters for martial arts movies painted on flour sacks for makeshift cinemas by sign makers in Ghana, west Africa, usually without seeing the films, make for a fascinating, quirky show at Hong Kong gallery

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 1:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 2:03pm

The usually cerebral Hanart TZ Gallery has opted for the delightfully quirky during Art Basel Hong Kong season, presenting a collection of hand-painted martial arts film posters, mostly done on old flour bags, from the 1980s and 1990s. And if that isn’t obscure enough, the posters are all originally from mobile cinemas in the west African nation of Ghana.

Ernie Wolfe, a gallery owner in Los Angeles, has acquired hundreds of old film posters from Ghana over years of repeat visits. He decided to bring over the ones used for Hong Kong martial arts films “to complete the circle”, with help from university friend Johnson Chang, owner of Hanart.

“Here we are in Hong Kong, looking at paintings that truly came from here, and interpreted by people in another land at a different point in time,” he said.

The artists were all professional sign makers in Ghana who grabbed the chance to create a visual narrative and ran with it. As Wolfe explained, most of them painted the posters without seeing the films beforehand, films such as Jackie Chan’s 1976 Hand of Death and Bruce Lee’s Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger from the same year.

“You see actions in these posters that never take place in the films. The painters would become more familiar with the actors over the years and they would interpret the characters the way they saw fit,” he added. Or they would resort to recycling older images. For Chow Yun-fat’s Tiger on the Beat, the painter known as Samuel simply put Chow’s image from Hard Boiled on the poster.

The posters range from the rough-and-ready, typos and unrealistic representations included, to meticulous depictions of Chinese musclemen that took weeks to complete. They were all commissioned by small businesses, called film clubs, that showed imported videos in rural areas in makeshift, outdoor cinemas equipped with nothing more than a television, a VCR player, speakers and a few benches. Action films, both Hollywood productions and those from Hong Kong with their unique take on the genre, were the biggest hits.

Why Ghana? Tight import restrictions up to the mid-1980s meant that commercial printing facilities were not widely available, Wolfe said, and that gave rise to an industry of hand-painted film posters just as videos became more popular. Flour sacks were the preferred media because of their durability and density.

“It’s a wonderful way to make connections between Africa and China, which now has such a presence in the continent. These posters presented an unfiltered vision of China from Africa, a vision unfiltered by Western perspectives,” he said.

Kung Fu In Africa: Golden age hang-painted movie posters from Ghana (1985-1999), Hanart TZ Gallery, 4/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Mon-Fri 10am-6:30pm, Sat 10am-6pm. Ends April 16