Icons and demons

Gallery exhibition showcases Ghanaian concert party genre

At festival time, the roadsides in the West African nation of Ghana are adorned with huge, colorful sign board advertisements, depicting scenes from all-night musical and theatrical events performed outdoors in concert parties by itinerant musicians and actors.

A Mark Anthony concert party painting displayed on a street in West Africa.

The concert parties combine music, comedy and multiple-act morality plays. The narrative paintings, usually common house paint on plywood, are used as a way to entice audiences, many of them semi-literate, to the concert parties.

The acknowledged master of this genre is Mark Anthony of Agona Swedru, Ghana. Eighteen of his concert party paintings, which depict the most startling scenes from four different plays, are featured in the exhibition, "Hollywood Icons, Local Demons," which runs through December 15 at the University Gallery in the Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Ave., on the Medford/Somerville campus.

In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a panel discussion, "Popular Arts and Performance from Ghana," at the gallery on Thursday, November 14, from 5 to 7 p.m. The panel will be moderated by Rosalind Shaw, associate professor of anthropology at Tufts. Panelists will be Emmanuel Akyeampong of Harvard University, David Donkor of Northwestern University, Jesse Weaver Shipley from the University of Chicago and Michelle Gilbert, the curator of the exhibition, who teaches anthropology and art history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Since 1976, Gilbert has conducted field research on art, religion and politics in an Akan kingdom of southern Ghana.

The concert party paintings are large (usually six feet high and seven feet wide) and colorful, with startling combinations of images that both presage and recreate the performances. "What is immediately evident," says Doug Bell, interim director of the University Gallery, "is the heavy indication of wear and tear" on the paintings. "The multiple repairs, the broken frameworks, the scratches, the rust and broken hinges all point to the history of the boards' constant use as advertisements for concert parties across West Africa.

"Although the boards sometimes depict horrible acts or their bloody results, there is a wry sense of humor throughout," Bell says. "The beasts [depicted] are far-fetched, yet eerily recognizable. On the one hand, the paintings can be compared to religious and allegorical art of the pre-Renaissance, and on the other, they resemble posters for kitsch Hollywood B movies."

The exhibition and the November 14 panel discussion are free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For information, call (617) 627-3518 or visit the web site www.tufts.edu/as/gallery