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Plastic Jerrycans: Aging and Material Characteristics of an Artist Material in West Africa


Found plastic materials, such as plastic jerrycans, make up a growing portion of contemporary African arts. West African artists, including Beninese Romuald Hazoum� and Ghanaian Serge Attukwei Clottey, are leading the way in incorporating these materials into their works, which often emulate or draw from more traditional imagery, forms, and ideas of their respective cultures. As these objects begin to enter museums and galleries, questions of their stability—intended or not—are being raised. For this research, seven different colors of jerrycans made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), all from the manufacturer Scepter, were gathered for testing. In addition to characterization of the materials and their colorants, three primary tests were carried out: accelerated heat aging, accelerated light aging, and heat treatment where specimens were exposed to high heat and melted slightly, emulating techniques used by artists to manipulate their materials. Chemical and visual changes were tracked before, during, and after testing using photographic documentation, microscopy, Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS), and color and gloss measurements. The goals of this research are to characterize the HDPE samples, investigate how these commercial materials age, and see how this compares to manipulations from the artists. Results indicate that these materials are not simply HDPE but can include additional layers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer (EVOH) as a hydrocarbon barrier, as well as stable and UV-resistant colorants. Further, these HDPE samples were resistant to heat aging, light aging, and heat treatment, with only the slightest evidence of chemical changes and almost no fading of the colorants. Aside from a few caveats discussed in the conclusion, artists may consider plastic jerrycans as a stable medium for use in art and sculpture.

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