Friday, Mar. 15–Sunday, Mar. 17, $25–$90
By and large, modern movie posters are boring. They’re usually just a still showcasing a few characters and special effects, or the lead actors’ faces blown up to a massive size that makes it impossible to tell what the film is about.
But necessity is the mother of invention, a truism that, in Ghana, resulted in some of the most inventive movie posters ever. Staring in the 1980s, in remote Ghanaian villages, films circulated through underground video clubs with a VCR and an electric generator. These screenings were promoted with posters painted on flour sacks by artists who sometimes had only the VHS box art for reference. The result was a bounty of massive, colorful, often surreal posters that have become cherished by collectors and spawned a market for new commissions. This weekend, a renowned collection of them is heading for NC Comicon at the Raleigh Convention Center, as part of a slate of collaborative programming with Alamo Drafthouse.
Brian Chankin, the owner of Odd Obsession Movies, a cult-video store in Chicago’s Wicker Park, turned his fascination with Ghanaian movie posters into a second business with his sister, Heidi Anne. Deadly Prey Gallery specializes in vintage original posters as well as commissions from artists in Ghana, including some of the underground luminaries from the video clubs’ nineties heyday. In advance of Deadly Prey’s trip to NC Comicon, we spoke with Chankin about his passion for movie memorabilia, the culture behind the posters, and how a no-budget cult action film gave his gallery its name.
INDY: How did you discover Ghanaian movie posters?
BRIAN CHANKIN: A friend of mine brought in a book of the posters, and I freaked out. I thought, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” I think it helped that people know I like weird movies and collecting weird movie stuff. From there, I just started researching and collecting.
When were these posters just made for video clubs, and at what point did commissions become a thing?
The video clubs started in the early eighties. By 1986, the first posters were being painted by artists like Joe Mensah and Leonardo. The last traveling posters I’ve seen are from around 2007, but by 2000, many poster artists were already making the posters as art alone, and also taking commission projects. I think commissions have been a thing since the beginning. It’s just that in the eighties and nineties, it was video clubs commissioning the posters and paying the artists.
When it comes to the vintage posters, are the artists who created them known today?
There were probably more than seventy-five artists making these posters in their heyday. We work with seven of the artists from the nineties, and there’s maybe eight more who run their own business. Many of the artists sell their work to dealers and traders in Ghana these days, for good prices, after years of being taken advantage of. The prices for commissioned and new work have gone up steadily, I’m happy to say. Unfortunately, many of the past artists are difficult to get ahold of. After 2000, many of them simply moved on from making posters because of the drop in business. Many of those same works, however, are not for sale. They are in my permanent collection of posters that will someday find themselves back in Ghana to be archived.
Do you have any famous clients you can talk about?
I can tell you that there are some actors, like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, who bought a lot of these. Not from me. [Laughs] Arnold, I know, bought a lot of the super, super old and expensive ones from Ernie Wolfe III, who did the book Extreme Canvas about the Ghana posters. There’s an interview where Stallone is talking about how he has a Cliffhanger poster from Ghana from the nineties. A lot of my own clients have been people in the tattoo community. Action Bronson’s bought a number over the years, and he found out it about it through other people in the tattoo community. It’s been a surprising variety of clients.
A lot of artists do movie-poster prints of different films out of fandom, but these came out of necessity.
Right. I’d say, over time, it came to be both: fandom and necessity. Some of these artists have painted so many of these titles over the years that they’re very familiar with certain films, despite having only seen parts of the film or the VHS art. If twenty different people ask someone to do a poster of Big Trouble in Little China, even if they’ve done it many times before, you’re still going to get twenty different posters, and all of them are going to be amazing.
One of the most popular titles people ask me for is Star Wars, and of course, you can commission one. But if you want to find an old one, you can’t—there were almost no VHS tapes of the original movies in Ghana, because they had copy protection and were almost impossible to bootleg. Things like that dictate which movies would become popular in Ghana. It’s directly responsible for how I got the name Deadly Prey.
That film was popular … anywhere?
Deadly Prey is obviously a cool movie and has its own fan base in the bad-movie realm, but in Ghana, I feel it can stand side by side with The Matrix and Robocop and The Terminator as this kind of sublime American action movie that is thought of as part of the larger popular culture.
You also have some posters for films made in Africa.
A lot of those are horror films, often with a religious bent. The main character is usually a pastor, and the bad guy is usually the devil. There aren’t as many posters for films that are dramas, because they aren’t as sensational.
What are some elements that contribute to a memorable Ghanaian film poster?
It actually helps if the title can be interpreted in different ways. We did a commissioned poster for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai recently, and the artist drew Forest Whitaker fighting a bunch of dog ghosts with a samurai sword.
What all will you bring to NC Comicon?
We’ll have around two hundred and fifty originals, the most we’ve ever brought to a show, and if you’re interested in getting a commission from an artist in Ghana, we can talk to you about costs and setting things up.
How do you acquire these posters?
Well, I’ve been collecting them for about eight years now, and doing Deadly Prey for the last five years. I was doing commissions and stuff just on my own, which I set up with my partner in Ghana. I mostly work through people I’ve networked with over there. I am planning to go, however, right after NC Comicon. My partner in Ghana, Kofi Gharety, whom I’ve been dealing with for the whole eight years—we’ve talked on the phone, emailed, texted, but we’ve never met in person. So that’s going to be amazing, getting to see him for the first time. I can’t wait for that day.