The first thing you see when you enter Wyrd War's exhibit of horror movie posters is a work with its title painted in red and white capital letters: "THE FIERCE GHOST EATS HUMAN REGION."
It was painted by Ghanaian artist Sharp Ashaiman in the late '90s, and according to Dennis Dread, the show's curator and founder of record and film company Wyrd War, the poster is a loose interpretation of Interview with the Vampire. Like the other posters in the exhibit, its details take time to sink in. "They kind of just keep giving," says Dread. "There's little things that you don't quite catch because they are so overwhelming at first."
Lining the walls of the Cobra Lounge behind Tiny's Coffee on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are 35 of the most bizarre and gory Ghanaian movie posters Wyrd War could find. The pulpy, surreal scenes are painted with smooth, glossy acrylic on large sheets of stitched-together flour sacks. On a poster by an artist whose moniker is Teshie, there's a man shooting spider venom into another man's mouth. There are several posters in the exhibit by Dr. Brew, one of the movement's most legendary artists, including a poster for a movie called House Party, on which a group of powder-blue monsters in green dresses feasts on human body parts and bowls of blood.
In the mid-'80s, VHS tapes of American movies became widely available in Ghana. So impromptu movie theaters popped up around the country that were usually held outdoors and powered by portable generators. To advertise the temporary movie theaters, artists would paint detailed, vivid posters. "It's beautiful fine art, but it's also meant to be commercial advertising," says Dread. "Those two collided and created this new anomaly."
Most of the posters were made by artists who had never seen the movies and were working from a plot summary, or at best, the VHS sleeve. In Wyrd War's exhibit, there's an Indiana Jones poster that depicts a scene that's unrecognizable from any of the movies: A man and a woman screaming as they're boiled alive in a giant caldron.
In the late '90s, distributors started supplying mass-produced promotional art for screenings in Ghana. Without the need, the creation of hand-painted movie posters died down. But it was around that same time that the art movement caught the attention of American art collectors due to the publication of a book in 2000 called Extreme Canvas. Written by Ernie Wolfe and horror movie director Clive Barker, the book helped launch an obsession with Ghanaian movie posters among art collectors. Despite their popularity with private collectors, the posters are rarely exhibited, even though they were initially created for a public audience.
Most of the posters in Wyrd War's exhibit are on loan from Chicago's Deadly Prey Gallery. The gallery is entirely dedicated to movie posters from Ghana, making it one of the few places where the general public can view the artists' work. Deadly Prey owns hundreds of posters, most of which are purchased directly from the artists. But occasionally, the posters have circulated through American buyers for long enough that the gallery has to track down the artist to compensate them for their work.
It's possible to think of the art as a way to view American culture from the outside. There's even a poster by Teshie for an movie called America 3000, complete with an American flag and a giant ape with glam-metal hair carrying a boombox.
But the posters you can't stop staring at are the ones that seem impossible to completely unlock. One of Dr. Brew's posters is for a Nigerian movie called The Guardian. A tree is consuming a person head first through a bloody slit in its trunk. Its roots are curled around small, struggling people, and there's a dog off to the side with someone's severed leg in its mouth. It's hard to tell what exactly the movie is about, and since The Guardian is unaccounted for and went straight to VHS, the answer may be lost to time. But Brew's poster tells enough of its own story that it doesn't really matter what vague plot summary it was based on.
It's that layered, vivid sense of narrative that makes the gory scenes so engulfing. "We're not really 'buy a landscape and put it over your couch' kind of people," says Dread. "Art should be visceral."
SEE IT: The Fierce Ghost Eats Human Region is at Cobra Lounge, 2027 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., wyrdwar.com. 4 pm-8pm Wednesday-Thursday through Oct. 26. Closing reception 7 pm-10 pm Friday, Oct. 27, with a lecture by the owner of Deadly Prey Gallery. Free.