In the 1986 film "Cobra," Sylvester Stallone plays a cop nicknamed Cobra. There is no actual snake in the movie. That didn't stop an artist, painting an African movie poster for "Cobra," from embellishing the story.
"He wanted people to come see the movie so he put a big-ass cobra in the poster, next to the smoking barrel of a machine gun," says Ernie Wolfe. "The sole job of these artists were to be crowd-pullers."
Wolfe, an art gallerist from Los Angeles, is the guest curator of a goofy, fun exhibit at New Britain Museum of American Art, "Ghana Paints Hollywood."
The exhibit showcases dozens of hand-painted posters of imported American films made during the "golden age" of movie-poster art in the west African country from the mid '80s to the late '90s.
"These aren't just paintings. They are about a point in time when the internal workings of this culture met the external workings of world cinema," says Wolfe, who has written two books about Ghanaian movie posters. "The best and the brightest painters competed for these jobs. They're all really good paintings and you can see the hand of the artists. They make visual narratives from their perspectives."
The artists became famous in Ghana through their poster work.
"They defined the moment," Wolfe says. "People thought, if Joe Mensah made the poster it must be a good movie."
Other artists with works in the show include Alex Boateng, Gilbert Forson, D.A. Jasper and the marvelously named Death Is Wonder.
Artists' perspectives often go in directions that don't actually reflect the films. In the poster for the 1990 romance "Ghost," a woman who looks nothing like Demi Moore seemingly gives birth to a demon baby. A character in Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1984 "Conan the Destroyer" looks like Jesus on a donkey. "Return of the Living Dead II" makes the zombies look almost harmless.
The poster for Stallone's 1993 "Cliffhanger" is one of Wolfe's favorites.
"He's holding a gun that probably doesn't exist. The ripples in his shirt are better looking and more mountainous than the snow-covered mountains behind him. He is one rock of a man," Wolfe says.
All of the designs are over the top.
"They are bigger than life. That's because they were meant to be viewed through the window of a bus going 40 miles per hour and kicking up a cloud of swirling dust," he says. "They are like circus sideshow banners."
Colors are vivid and often unrealistic — pink lions, multicolored hair — and musculature, on men and women, is exaggerated. (Wolfe calls this "rippleosity.") Figures rarely look like the actors they depict. The blonde in "King Solomon's Mines" doesn't look like Sharon Stone. The blonde in "Return of the Swamp Thing" doesn't look like Heather Locklear. A painting of Patrick Swayze looks like a painting of Michael Jackson.
In many posters, spatial orientation is thrown out the window. "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle" towers over a tiny giraffe. The hero in the poster for "Gargantua" wears a boot big enough to sink the ship beneath it. The 1993 schlock-horror "Ticks" shows a woman being attacked by a tick bigger than she is.
"The artists don't have any perception of how things should be done. They did not go to European art schools," Wolfe says. "They don't give a fee-weedle-deedle about realistic scale."
Although the movies are American, the artists' and audiences' African outlooks can be seen in many artworks. The poster for the 1990 comedy "House Party" is all about the African-American actors' hair.
"This was a very important movie in terms of cross-cultural influence. American hairdos influenced pop culture in Africa," he says.
Another cross-cultural film was Eddie Murphy's 1988 "Coming to America." "Commentary about African culture and American culture, how they can co-exist and coagulate, the movie talked about this issue directly," Wolfe says.
The golden age ended when technology became available to cheaply print out posters and the electrical grid was improved, which let people watch movies in their homes. Handpainted posters were revived later, Wolfe says, but the new artists were commercially oriented. Artistically, the effect wasn't the same as it was in the old days.
"There's a purity to the work. They're a little edgier and tougher. They weren't made to be sold. They were meant for their country alone. After they were painted they were cut into patches and went away and became detritus."
GHANA PAINTS HOLLYWOOD will be at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until Feb. 19. nbmaa.org.