Some Notes on Painting a Film

Yesterday at work, in anticipation for this week’s Block Cinema screenings of films by Femi Odugbemi, I walked the three flights up to the Herskovits Library of African Studies to see their Nollywood pop-up exhibition. I was drawn by the announcement that the library had acquired hand-painted movie posters from Ghana. Fortunate enough to be colleagues with the curators, I learned that these paintings are done on the hollowed-out insides of flour sacks and often painted by artists who have never seen the movie themselves, but are given a title and, perhaps, a brief synopsis.

As part of the “Ghanaian Mobile Cinema” which began in the late 1980s, these paintings, then, are movies themselves, directed by painters and offering “alternate scenes” as a kind of translation between a possible film and its potential audience, and often radically resituating the original foreign works in Ghanaian contexts.

In being moved by these pieces, I started to think of memory and remediation, of colonialism and collecting. My wife, who passed away nearly two years ago, lived in Ghana for a year—do I have any photographs of her with these posters in the background? Or, by the time she was there, had the paintings been replaced by prints? Did she see any of these films? And what of one form turned into another, like so much alchemy? I thought of Lispector writing painting, and Jafa visualizing music. How do these paintings perform acts of decolonization? Why have these artistic and agential interpretations of (mostly) Hollywood films found their way back to the United States? The afterlife of a work of art is the archive—how to tell that story, too? (To these questions, I’m so grateful to be reading Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History at the moment.)

These paintings, these moving images — original works by pseudonymous artists like Teshie, Mr. Brew, Nkwanta, Big Otis, Leonardo, and others — were acquired from Deadly Prey Gallery in Chicago. As I scroll the gallery’s online archive (or, since they are for sale, perhaps “inventory” is a more appropriate term?), I realize I have not seen a single one of the films that were to be screened. Yet, having seen these posters, I’ve seen—and will continue to see—other films with the same names as the one’s I’ve not seen.