Brian Chankin is a man of distinct interests. Not for nothing is the movie-rental store he has owned for a decade called Odd Obsession. In addition to the library of obscure films that lines the shelves of his Bucktown bazaar, Chankin has amassed several thousand vinyl records, largely reggae, which he spins monthly at the Whistler's Odd Obsession Film Series & Dance Party Ting. (The next one is March 22 at 7pm.)
In his latest collecting jag, which began more than three years ago, he has assembled some 200 hand-painted signs and posters from Ghana, many of which are now on display in three different locations. Chankin's Ghanaian salon posters are hanging at Strange Beauty Show in West Town, through April 14, in a show called "Sportin' Waves." Posters made by artists in the West African country for martial arts, Bollywood and American movies (including those starring Charles Bronson, a Chankin favorite) can be viewed on the walls at Odd Obsession. And through March 30 at the Harold Washington College President's Gallery, Chankin is exhbiting more than 50 of the posters made for Nigerian films, known as Nollywood cinema, in "Demons, Snake Girls & Evil Trees." At the opening last Thursday, Chankin talked about why he's compelled by the absurd art-ads.
What is it about Ghanaian film posters that first grabbed your interest?
Just the weirdness and all the variations of weirdness they encompass. They often involve voodoo and animals and living things that shouldn't actually be alive. [Laughs] The painting styles vary greatly from realism to something that is incredibly crude. But they're all doing the same thing: advertising a movie while blurring the line between art and advertising. Although many of the films are Nigerian, the artists make just as many posters for American films or martial arts movies or Bollywood films. They started doing posters for Nollywood films in the early 2000s, while they've been making posters for American and martial arts movies since the '80s. So as Nollywood cinema grew and became popular in Ghana, artists started making posters of Nollywood movies as well.
And the movie posters are ads made for Ghanaian video clubs, right?
Yes. In the cities, they have big theaters, and video clubs take over the theaters for screenings. The real market is actually in the country, where they don't have movie theaters. When they started up in the '80s, those video clubs were mobile, travelling between villages with a television, VCR and a generator.
How did you initially get exposed to the posters?
About three and a half years ago, I had a friend who let me borrow the book Ghanavision: Hand-Painted Film Posters from Ghana. After that, I started looking for the posters. On about the 60th page of a Google search, I found an art dealer in Ghana who had some in a gallery.
Amazing what you can find hidden deep on Google.
Absolutely. So I e-mailed this guy and thought maybe he'd never e-mail me back. His site hadn't been updated in a really long time. But sure enough, he e-mailed me back in two days, like, "Not only do I have the posters on the site, but I also have these," and he sent me 20 more. Straight out of Ghana, they're cheaper, like a few hundred dollars. When they come here or go to Europe, they go for thousands of dollars.
You've had Ghanaian artists create posters for you?
Yes. They're tagged with "Odd Obsession Video Chicago" as the video company. The same art dealer who finds these posters for me is in touch with all the artists, too. I've contracted a couple of them to have some posters for movies that I like made for the store. The artist I really like who has done a few posters for the store is a dude named Heavy J. He's one of the only artists working today who was also working in the '90s, and his style hasn't changed. He's one of the more famous artists out there. Another guy goes by the name Salvation has done a lot for the store and I have a couple of his Nollywood posters up at Harold Washington. Mr. Brew is another prolific poster artist.
They all have tagger names.
Totally. The poster culture originated in the '80s, as did hip-hop culture, so it makes some sense.
How good are Nollywood films?
They're…really bad. [Laughs] The posters are 100 times better than the films. The artists have done a great job of making these movies seem way better than they are. A lot of the artists haven't even seen the movies. If there's a movie that needs a poster, they'll get the description online or maybe watch the trailer. Or if they know a certain actor is in the movie—and this is old-school style—like, say, Van Damme, they'll make Van Damme big as hell. He could be doing anything! And they'll just stick the movie title on top.
So the tradition of hand-painted posters continues even though printing is more accessible?
It does continue, but it's not as prevalent as it once was. It's probably decreased about 80 percent in the last 12 years, but it's still happening. If there were 20 different video clubs back then, there are probably four or five now.
Do they make posters for American rom-coms?
Yes! But not many. On eBay, I saw a Pretty Woman poster. [Laughs] I wanted to buy it! It's rare.