Shortly before Christmas I received a call from Andrea Rose our Director of Visual Arts in London. She had heard from Chris Ofili, the Turner prize winning artist, that he had left four of his famous elephant dung paintings at the National Gallery in Bulawayo over twenty years previously. Andrea wanted to know if I could find out whether they were still there.
In 1992, Ofili, then aged 23, won a British Council scholarship to attend the Pachipamwe International Artists’ Workshop. Pachipamwe means “where we are all together” in Shona. The workshop was held at Cyrene Mission, an Anglican school with a strong artistic heritage just outside Bulawayo.
It was at this workshop, attended by leading Zimbabwean artists including Tapfuma Gutsa and Berry Bickle, that Ofili first used elephant dung in his painting; a practice for which he is now widely known. At the end of his visit the artist left four paintings to the Pachipamwe organisation who gave them on permanent loan to the National Gallery in Bulawayoto add to their collection of contemporary art.
For Ofili, who was born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, this was his first visit to Africa and his time in Zimbabwe had a profound effect on his work. In 1998 he won the Turner prize and last year one of his paintings reached a record price of ?1.9 million at Christies.
So where were the paintings? An initial call to the gallery director initiated a search. Voti Thebe the curator of the Bulawayo gallery who, as a young artist, had also attended Pachipamwe thought he remembered the paintings but didn’t know exactly where they were stored. Maybe they were still at Cyrene?
A few weeks went by before we got the news. Three of the paintings had been found in the cellar but the fourth was still missing. The paintings were in urgent need of conservation and in January this year, British Council sponsored Natasha Walker a restorer from Tate Modern and an Ofili expert to travel out to Bulawayo to restore them.
The project was a great success and the three canvases are now back to their former glory and re-stretched on new frames which will last for many years to come.
We had just said goodbye to Natasha when the call came from Bulawayo. The fourth painting had been found. Joyline the new conservator at the Bulawayo gallery who had been working with Natasha on the paintings refused to give up the search and three months after the start of the project she tracked down the fourth painting. Jammed behind another canvass the piece had been previously overlooked.
The complete set of elephant dung paintings will now form the centrepiece to the exhibition ‘Remembering Pachipamwe’ which will celebrate the work of the original workshop participants. The show is set to open at the National Gallery Bulawayo later this year.
By Jill Coates, Director British Council Zimbabwe