MARTIAL ART

The hand-painted movie posters that captured kung fu’s golden age in Africa

Obsession
China in Africa
Quartz africa
Obsession
China in Africa
Quartz africa

By the mid-1980s, globalization in the form of kung fu films starring the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li had reached Ghana. Communities gathered around mobile cinemas—a television monitor and VCR, run on a gas-powered generator set up in someone’s home or an open public square—to watch classics like Master of Shaolin, Exit the Dragon, or Hand of Death.

Winneba Cape Coast region Ghana mid-1990s
A roadside cinema advertises the 1996 film “First Strike,” starring Jackie Chan. (Photograph by Ernie Wolfe III)
A video club in Cape Coast Ghana in 1998
A video club in Cape Coast Ghana in 1998. (Photograph by Ernie Wolfe III)

To lure audiences, local artists were employed to paint movie posters on flour sacks that could be rolled up and taken to the next screening. Now, a rare collection of these paintings is on display at the Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong. The paintings were curated by Ernie Wolfe III, who has been traveling to Africa researching and collecting art since the 1970s.

“The best and brightest artists of a generation competed fiercely and directly in the public eye to produce this exciting new work, being careful to sign and date the great majority of their paintings,” Wolfe said in his curatorial essay for the “Kung Fu in Africa” exhibit.

Return to the 36th Chamber of Shaolin
A poster for “Return to the 36th Chamber” in 1994. (Hanart TZ Gallery, Ernie Wolfe Gallery)
Exit the Dragon poster
(Hanart TZ Gallery, Ernie Wolfe Gallery)

What emerged, according to Wolfe, was a period of “African folk pop” art in which some of the country’s best painters celebrated heroes from a world completely different from their own. “What is more, this was a direct Hong Kong-to-Africa transmission, without any kind of Western filtering,” he wrote.

The posters provide a window into how Ghanaians, many of whom had never met a Chinese person, much less visited East Asia, interpreted Chinese culture years before China would begin to have a large presence on the continent in trade, investment, and exports. In one poster advertising Master of Shaolin, the Chinese actor Jet Li is depicted as having blue eyes. In others, the kung fu masters are painted with red skin.

Master of Shaolin movie poster

Bruce Lee movie poster red
(Hanart TZ Gallery, Ernie Wolfe Gallery)

The posters also depict a period before machine printing. At the time, most signage was still done by hand. By the 1990s, the hand-painted movie posters had gone out of style, according to Wolfe.

Roadside cinema Cape Coast region Ghana  1998
By the late 1990s, chalkboard signs and cheap digitally printed images had replaced the more expensive hand-painted movie posters. (Photograph by Ernie Wolfe III)

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