African movie posters featured at HCC exhibit

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE Their imagery is defiantly politically incorrect and titillating: snakes slither out of the abdomens of screaming men; men dressed in cleric's robes brandishing guns; a man standing in a swamp with a machete in one hand and a severed human head in the other.

The hand-painted posters in the new exhibit "Shockers!" at the Taber Art Gallery at Holyoke Community College (HCC) are just that. The provocative artwork was designed to draw audiences in rural Ghana to the movies presented by traveling showmen in the 1980s and '90s.

They represent part of the collection of Michelle Gilbert, an anthropologist and art historian who is currently a guest faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

Gilbert explained to Reminder Publications that her collection came about through her research in African urban art. She had been in rural Ghana when she became interested in traveling concert parties. These were groups of musicians and actors who would go from community to community presenting first a concert followed by a 20-act morality play.

What intrigued Gilbert were the billboards created to advertise these productions. They were hand-painted on plywood. They were usually discarded at the end of the run of the production and Gilbert was able to purchase enough to create an exhibit of them that toured museums in this country.

With some of her purchases, Gilbert was told she could only buy the plywood posters if she also bought movie posters that were painted on flour sacks. Although she wasn't particularly interested in them, she purchased them.

She has exhibited some of them when asked how many she has, she replied, "piles of them" in several museums and galleries and has written several articles about them.

The 1980s and '90s were the heydays for the traveling showmen who show up in villages with a VCR and a TV to show movies. To draw an audience, they would show the box art of the video to local artists in order for them to create a poster.

The artists would, Gilbert said, "make it as they would say 'more interesting.'"

The collection at HCC includes only one western film director Wes Craven's "The Serpent and the Rainbow" and the rest appear to be African movies. Many of the posters bear the legend "Nigerian movie."

Gilbert said supernatural themes were common and that many of the films were highly influenced by Pentecostal Christianity. They were also frequently shown in several parts.

Gilbert's collection came to HCC through her friendship with local seamstress Sue Bennett, who has a studio in Open Square in Holyoke. Bennett suggested Gilbert show some of the other artists who have studios there and eventually Amy Johnquest, the director of the Taber Art Gallery, saw the artwork. Gilbert said Johnquest proclaimed it as "wild stuff."

The era of this kind of showmanship is over in Ghana, Gilbert said. With rural electrification, many more people have their own home video systems and there is little demand for the traveling shows.

The posters have been discovered by western collectors and sell for as high as $1,000 each, she added.

"Shockers!" will be on exhibit though Sept. 28. For more information, call 552-2614