The Art of Kung Fu: From Hong Kong to Africa and Back

Ghana Kung Fu Poster H 2016
Hanart TZ Gallery

Hong Kong's Hanart TZ gallery’s Kung Fu in Africa exhibition unveils a rare collection of lively, hand-painted ?lm art from the '80s and '90s depicting everyone from Bruce Lee to Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Hong Kong's film heritage is coming full circle — by way of West Africa.

Currently showing at Hanart TZ, one of Hong Kong's finest galleries dealing in Chinese contemporary art, is "Kung Fu in Africa," an exhibition of 32 colorful, hand-painted martial arts movie posters, which were produced by enterprising artists in Ghana during the 1980s and 1990s. Painted on huge canvas flour sacks, the images are as delightful as they are unlikely. As the exhibition's curator Ernie Wolfe puts it: "These works are a product of globalization in the best possible way."

Wolfe, a longtime dealer in African art via his namesake gallery in Los Angeles, collected the works over dozens of trips to Ghana during the past two decades. A personal friendship with Hanart founder Johnson Chang — the two went to college together — led to the collaboration on the current show.

"This is about returning to Hong Kong images that came from Hong Kong but were never filtered through Chinese or Western eyes," Wolfe says. "There is an independent reality to their being that anyone can immediately appreciate."

As Wolfe explains, the posters were created by Ghanese sign painters as advertisements for a unique form of mobile moviegoing that once existed in the country.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, large portions of Ghana had no electrical grid, and much of the country's population had little to no experience of going to the movies. Digital printing technology had also yet to arrive in the country, and nearly all signage and billboards were hand-printed by craftsmen trained through a loose by rigorous master-apprentice system. The only variety of cinema that did exist across broad stretches of the country consisted of vans, gas powered generators and VHS tapes, which enterprising local "distributors" took on the road into the Ghanese hinterlands. To attract an audience, these mobile movie hawkers hired sign painters to produce vibrant posters, which they called "crowd pullers."

According to Wolfe, many of the artists didn't have a chance to see the films before they were commissioned to produce the ads, meaning that "verisimilitude of what's depicted in the poster and what actually occurred in the movie was not always present," as he puts it. "They invented images and wanted to let their imaginations run wild, to create a level of visual agitation that would lure people into the movies," Wolfe adds.

Along with Bollywood pictures and Hollywood action movies, Hong Kong kung fu flicks — such as Jackie Chan's Hand of Death, Bruce Lee's Exit the Dragon and Jet Li's Master of Shaolin — were particularly popular in East Africa during the period.

"I've been to tiny villages in remote Ghana, where the kids have never even seen a person that looks like me; but at the same time, you find people practicing martial arts moves or Tai Chi in the town square," Wolfe says. "Kung fu movies have a degree of universality in their popularity and appeal — like the way that football is played in every corner of the world."

The posters are are also huge, with many of the figures nearly life-size. "They were made so that if you drove by in a bus, you could instantly read what was happening on the poster and make a decision if you were going to jump off to see the film."

The works on view at Hanart TZ already represent a lost form. By the late 1990s, import laws were relaxed in Ghana and a "tsunami" of technology swept into the country, including printing technology, cheap TVs and chalk boards, which artists use to make quicker and cheaper temporary signage. "Home viewing and the import of chalk boards ended this tradition," Wolfe says.

"What's important about this show," he says, "is that these posters were made during a time when quite literally the best and brightest of Ghana's artists kept technology at bay and created images that were utterly organic in their creation and in their invention."