Deadly Prey: Ghanaian Movie Posters Gone Wild | Varyer

A Gonzo Lack of Fidelity

Movie posters for plots you wish were real

Have you ever seen The Royal Tenenbaums? You know, the Wes Anderson movie, starring Gene Hackman. What do you remember from it? Gwyneth Paltrow walking in slow motion, set to the Nico song “These Days”? Ben Stiller and the two children playing his sons, all clad in red Adidas track suits? Do you remember the scene where one of the two boys was decapitated? No?! Well, just take a look at the movie poster.

Except this poster isn’t the one you remember from when The Royal Tenenbaums initially came out. It’s painted thick and deep with enamel. The images don’t quite reflect scenes you viewed. You might recall Owen Wilson driving a convertible in face paint, but not a wolf attacking him while he was behind the wheel.

The unusual poster wasn’t actually released by the studio — in fact, it wasn’t even produced on this continent. It was made in Ghana, by an artist named Magasco; most likely, he hasn’t even seen The Royal Tenenbaums. Rather, the painting was commissioned halfway around the world by a bespectacled, sweet-natured, 41-year-old Chicagoan named Brian Chankin.

There's a lot of people who don't exactly understand what I'm doing here There's a lot of people who don't exactly understand what I'm doing here

Alongside Robert Kofi, a shop owner based in Accra, Ghana, Chankin runs Deadly Prey Gallery, which is unlike virtually any other art gallery in its focus, operation, and business practices. It deals exclusively in Ghanaian movie posters and currently has no physical space — Chankin handles everything out of his Chicago home in Logan Square. Most importantly, Chankin doesn’t command the large commission fees and percentages that exist in the contemporary art world: He takes about 25 to 30 percent of the sale price (galleries commonly ask for 50 percent) and what isn’t required for taxes and shipping goes directly to the artists.

“There's a lot of people who don't exactly understand what I'm doing here,” Chankin says. “They just see who I am and they get upset, like I’m capitalizing off of these artists in Ghana. I'm trying to tell them, we’ve created a business, not me.”

We’ve created a business, not me We’ve created a business, not me

Chankin’s ethical allegiance to the artists has a lot to do with his appreciation for the artform. An avid collector of movie posters, he was immediately drawn to Ghanaian artists for their unusual approach to the format. The paintings have a distinct aesthetic — rich and deep colors, bold lines and brushstrokes, and frequently, various scenes underneath a larger central figure or object. But more noteworthy is the artists’ gonzo lack of fidelity to the film itself: The deformed baby from Eraserhead appears on a poster for Twin Peaks; The Outsiders features all the characters as anthropomorphic tigers.

Ghanaian movie-poster painters took such liberties because they’d never seen the films beforehand — the artist would depict whatever the video operator would tell or show them — and to generate interest in the screenings. The posters would go up outside of theaters in major Ghanaian cities like Accra and Kumasi, but they were primarily used for mobile cinemas, trucks that traveled around the country with projectors and a library of titles, playing in villages without electricity. One way to get people excited about Mrs. Doubtfire is to show the title character jamming a broomstick into someone’s eye.

Chankin’s all-consuming pursuit of Ghanaian movie posters can be chalked up to his longtime, compulsive need to collect esoteric art. Originally from New Mexico, he came to Chicago in 2002 and got a “really crappy job” at an antique store. “I thought it was cool because I got to talk about art all day, sell art, and talk with people who are interesting,” he recalls. “The antique store was really interesting, but the guy running it was so lame and bad — a racist, sexist, old asshole. I don't even know if he knew antiques, to be honest.” At the time, Chankin was buying up obscure movies and selling them on eBay and figured he already knew enough about running a store to do it on his own. “I saw everything that guy did and I was like, ‘Well I could do this shit.’”

In 2004, Chankin maxed out a half dozen credit cards to open Odd Obsession, an analog refuge for Chicago’s most hardcore cinephiles. The store, which both rented and sold titles, carried everything from renowned but hard-to-find global art cinema to slimy C-movie gorefests. Odd Obsession quickly became ground zero for Chicagoans with the best and most distinct taste in cinema. From just a 15-minute discussion, a staff member could send you home with something by French New Wave director Alain Resnais and the Miami Vice movie and you’d probably end up loving them both.

“The store never made any money,” Chankin says. “It was really just to keep me busy and a cool thing to do. But it was always self-sustaining — we had a volunteer staff who wanted to be there. And it was an easy business to run. We only had to buy movies, and a lot of those movies we would sell when we didn't need them anymore.”

One of Odd Obsession’s most distinct features was the posters that adorned the walls, for films from all over the world. In 2011, an observant customer brought over a book for Chankin to check out: Ghanavision, a survey of Ghanaian movie posters published two years earlier by the Berlin-based artist duo Bongout.

“I started wondering how these guys got their hands on the posters,” Chankin says. “And then I just started looking around, seeing how to find them and if they were affordable.”

To get started, Chankin went to the most obvious source: eBay. “I couldn't find a single one for any popular movies,” he says. “It was mostly rare kung fu, low-budget action and horror, Indian movies. The movies weren't the best, but the art's awesome. I just wanted to get my hands on some to see what they feel and look like, and I started decking out the video store with them after that.”

He scoured the Internet for places to buy more posters, and at the far end of a Google search found a listing for a store in Accra called Ghana Origin. The shop had 15 for sale, all of which were fairly well known titles, like Big Trouble in Little China, and with artwork more impressive than anything Chankin had seen at the time. The person who ran the store was Robert Kofi. “I sent him an email and told him that I was interested in all of the paintings,” Chankin says. “And he responded, ‘Oh, I have more, let me send them to you, see if you like them, and then you can pay me later.' And I was like, This has got to be a scam. What's the play here?

I quickly realized that he's all business and he trusted me because he saw that I was all-in. And so I just started buying posters from him and trying to sell them in the video store, which worked out really nicely.”

This side hustle worked out so nicely, in fact, that it inspired Chankin to go a step further. Since Ghanaian artists worked off of descriptions by video operators, couldn’t he play the part of the art director? What if he took orders from people outside of Ghana and commissioned the painters to create posters exclusively for the customers? “The best question I ever asked Kofi was if he knew the artists,” Chankin says.

“And he said, ‘Yeah, I know the artists. I know them well’. [Chankin went on to explain that purchasers were for sure interested in the amazing artwork, but for the pop culture titles that weren't as easy to find they were willing to pay a premium and in advance.] The commissioned works meant the artists could sell their posters right away, for more money, without worrying about potential sales.

“They're going to be making three, four times the money they were making selling to a guy in Ghana. After a little bit of chatting with Kofi about this, he's like, ‘Well, this is awesome.’”

Together they started Deadly Prey, named after a 1987 American First Blood knockoff that’s popular in Ghana. The posters sold so quickly on Instagram that it encouraged Chankin to open up a physical space in 2015, on a commercial street in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood. The gallery lasted for only a year and a half, as running it proved to be more of a hassle than Chankin imagined. “A lot of kids would walk by and come in, and the work is pretty graphic, so I had to shoo them out,” he says. “And that really ended up being my gallery hours: shooing out kids. And then I'd have the one person who might be interested, who really isn't that interested. I wasn’t ready for it, really.”

Chankin doesn’t mind — he prefers working from home and has less overhead as a result. Saving money is important, since he’s making a documentary about Ghanaian movie-poster painters, which is temporarily delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last year he took a trip to Ghana and met many of the people he’d long admired, like Leonardo, who created the Big Trouble in Little China poster that first caught Chankin’s eye. “He's the veteran artist of everyone we work with,” Chankin says. “He's in his 60s, and he's thought of as one of the first three Ghanaian poster artists ever.”

Chankin is most eager to meet Mr. Breu, whom he claims has painted thousands of posters. “His are some of the most wild and the most simple of them all. He was the first guy who I really became obsessed with, and he's also notoriously hard to get a hold of, one of the biggest Ghanaian artists who nobody knows.” Though Kofi claims to have met Mr. Breu, Deadly Prey can only contact him through intermediaries. “I've learned more and more over the years about him,” Chankin says, ominously. "But the more I learn, the more mysterious he becomes."


As Deadly Prey ramped up, Chankin found that he was “half-assing everything.” Odd Obsession was losing money and when people started quarantining, the store became one of the earliest casualties of the independent-business massacre of 2020. As much as Chankin laments the closing, he’s visibly animated by the opportunity to devote all his energy to Deadly Prey. He speaks enthusiastically about current and future projects like expanding into tattoo design and prints — profits from the latter go directly to the artists. “It's a very affordable way to support them,” Chankin says. “That's been an extra paycheck they didn't expect. Every single artist was overjoyed.”

When Chankin discusses this initiative, his eyes light up. You can tell that he’s at his most content when the work he’s doing as a facilitator benefits the artists themselves. At a time when such egregious disparities exist between creators and merchants, Chankin demonstrates an alternative, a renegade form of low-stakes capitalism that prizes the artists and the customers above the intermediaries. And everyone benefits. “I just went to the post office and six of the packages were for Australia,” he exclaims. “It's become very taxing, thank god. Because that's great. I'm up for it!”

Photography: Lyndon French