Exuberantly colored and darkly themed, Chris Ofili‘s paintings pose all kinds of quandaries for conservators. The British artist uses a dizzying array of materials, including glitter, hair, beads, paper collage, and, perhaps most distinctively, elephant dung. Now conservators at the Tate have made Ofili replicas to study the long-term effects of light, age, and wear on his works in the museum’s permanent collection.
“We made replicas of the paintings because, obviously, it wasn’t possible to work with the paintings themselves,” conservator Natasha Walker told ARTnews.
The replicas look vaguely Ofili-like. They are the same size as Ofili’s often massive canvases, and were made using the same brands of paint, canvas, acrylic, and polyester resin that Ofili used. As for the dung, “I was told it was from the exact same elephant,” Walker says in a video the Tate made about the project, posted on the museum’s Web site.
In the ’90s, Ofili made his reputation and stirred a lot of controversy by using elephant dung. He has said his paintings with dung bring “beauty and decorativeness together with ugliness.”
For the replicas, conservators attached dried dung balls to the canvas with a hot-glue gun, and then poured resin over them, as Ofili did. In testing, the replicas were dropped to see at exactly what height the hardened resin would crack and the dung balls would fall off. The replicas were also placed under intense light for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for several months to see what the works would look like in 50 or 100 years.
Firsthand knowledge of how the paintings are made helps the conservators do their job. “If there’s a crack, I can maybe work out where it has come from or how it was formed,” Walker says.