In a nondescript industrial building in Buckman, demons, flesh-eating beasts and frightening human faces cover the walls, painted in vibrant colors on canvases made from jumbo flour sacks. These hand-painted movie posters from Ghana’s golden age of mobile cinema transliterate many genres, from low-budget action and martial arts films, to Hollywood blockbusters and horror classics like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
Portland artist and curator Dennis Dread, along with his partner, Meadow, created Wyrd—pronounced like “weird”—War in 2014, as a “record label and guerilla action group, specializing in the advancement and celebration of strange and wonderful music, film and art,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.
Wyrd War focuses on transgressive art, which is what attracted Dread to Ghanaian movie posters. “That’s one of the things that we really resonate with,” Dread said, “with some of the artists from Ghana: their willingness to go there, totally unflinchingly. They’re clearly not bound by the same kinds of parameters of offense or blasphemy or even sometimes rules of grammar, or rules of color or composition. All of that art downstairs to us is transgressive art. It has to do with cultural borders being transgressed as well, and the bleeding through of beauty and ideas that create new art.”
Guerilla Entrepreneurship in Ghana
Art will spring up wherever humans do, even under less than ideal conditions. This was the case in Ghana in the ‘80s, when entrepreneurs brought mobile cinemas to villages lacking reliable electrical power. These pop-up arrangements usually consisted of a television and VCR powered by a portable generator, along with a number of folding chairs, and showed a wide range of international films on VHS tape.
In order to attract bigger audiences, owners of mobile cinemas hired sign painters to create eye-catching advertisements for their films, sometimes without the benefit of seeing the movie or even knowing its plot. With a single-minded goal of increasing business, the painters felt free to try any poster designs that might grab the viewer, no matter how disturbing or confusing, or how the design might depart from the movie’s plot. As competition between cinemas grew, it pushed the work of artists like Mark Anthony and Mr. Brew to new levels of weird and wonderful, which is boldly on display in the “Shadow of Demons” exhibit.
Dread said he doesn’t know whether Portland has its own transgressive art scene, but perhaps that’s because he’s been too busy building one to ponder such idle questions. His background seems to have prepared him well for the task.
Dread grew up in Ossining, New York in the Hudson River Valley, a region home to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Sleepy Hollow. From Ossining, it’s an hour train ride south into New York City, where as a young man Dread did silk-screen printing for the infamous Mutilation Graphics, interned at punk incubator CBGB, and cut his cinematic teeth at the Film Forum. He put himself through college at the State University of New York at Purchase before moving to Portland in 1996.
In addition to gallery shows, Wyrd War curates an ongoing Signature Film Series at the Hollywood Theatre, entitled “Wyrd War Presents!,” which screens classic genre films and brings filmmakers and actors to participate in the events.
The series started in 2014 with Halloween 3, including an appearance by the movie’s composer and sound designer Alan Howarth. The event sold out, filling the Hollywood’s 384-seat main auditorium, and Howarth, who is known for his long collaboration with director John Carpenter, performed a selection of his music, which Wyrd War recorded and later released on vinyl.
Wyrd War has organized 17 events since 2014, screening gems such as Rollerball, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and Black Caesar, with star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson in attendance. Howarth returned to Portland for last month’s showing of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness on 35mm film, the success of which points the way ahead for Dread. “Prince of Darkness is the deep cut,” Dread said. “So the fact we sold out that obscure, weird movie is a good sign. It’s exciting to us.”
On the Agenda
Up next in Wyrd War’s film series on Nov. 17, is Deadly Prey, the machine guns-and-muscles action fest that went straight to VHS in 1987. Not only did Chankin name his gallery after the film, but its screening will tie into “Shadow of Demons,” with several oversized posters of the film displayed in the Hollywood’s lobby.
In the meantime, Chankin will return to his work brokering commissions between Ghanaian poster painters and their mainly European and American customers. The painters have to export their work if they hope to make a living by it. “These posters aren’t really thought of as art in Ghana,” Chankin said. “There’s a guy in the university in Accra who I talk to a lot. He’s actually the first person to archive these as art in Ghana in a major institution. It’s never happened before.”
When it comes to the recognition and promotion of transgressive art in Portland, Dread speaks wisely and from the heart: “We don’t think art has to be a safe space for people. We’re okay pushing people’s limits. People should feel safe in real life, and we’re not advocating any kind of harm to anyone, but when it comes to art we feel art is like dreams. You don’t censor dreams, and some dreams disturb you.”
“Shadow of Demons” runs Nov. 2–30. at Afru Gallery, 534 SE Oak St. Opening hours are 2–6 p.m., Friday–Sunday. A closing reception will be held Friday, Nov. 30, 6 p.m.–12 a.m., with live music by Lebenden Toten. More information is available at afrugallery.com and wyrdwar.com, and also on Instagram: @wyrdwar and @deadlypreygallery.