Bringing Aboriginal Art to the Harvard Art Museums

January 14, 2014
Yellow ochre cliffs at Bathurst Island. Photo: Narayan Khandekar.

Dodging crocodiles and digging yellow ochre from cliffs on Australia’s Arnhem Land coast—it’s just another day in the life of Narayan Khandekar, Senior Conservation Scientist in our Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. He recently journeyed to Australia with Director Tom Lentz, where they met with Stephen Gilchrist, the guest curator of a future Harvard Art Museums exhibition on contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia.

The Straus Center’s analytical laboratory is in the midst of conducting the first major survey of traditional bark paintings by Aboriginal artists, which will add a scientific component to the exhibition. To carry out research for the survey and the exhibition, Khandekar, Lentz, and Gilchrist visited artist communities, met with major galleries and museums, and, of course, collected materials. Khandekar took hundreds of tiny pigment and binding media samples from finished paintings, as well as raw materials, always giving passing crocodiles the right of way.

Man in a blue suit is standing in a laboratory with a sample of large colorful pigments on a cloth before him. He is holding a large white chalky pigment in his hand.
Photo: Caitlin Cunningham Photography. Director Narayan Khandekar examines pigments collected during his research trip to Australia in the analytical laboratory for the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.

Lead support for the exhibition has been provided by Harvard University’s Committee on Australian Studies.

  • of Fresh crocodile tracks observed while collecting ochre at Bathurst Island. Photo: Narayan Khandekar.
  • of Narayan Khandekar takes samples of yellow ochre for study and to add to the Forbes pigment collection. Photo: Stephen Gilchrist. 
  • of Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is located in central Australia. The site is sacred to the Anangu, the indigenous people of the area, and many paintings are found here. Photo: Narayan Khandekar.
  • of Guest curator Steven Gilchrist (center) observes artists Alan (left) and Peggy (right) Griffiths from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts as they collect bark from a “bat-wing coral tree,” which will be burned to make black pigment for their paintings. Photo: Narayan Khandekar.
  • of Artist DJ Djuwakan #2 Marika collects white clay to be used as a pigment in Yirrkala. Photo: Narayan Khandekar.
  • of Our team observed artists as they worked in Yirrkala. Artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu grinds ochre into pigment and mixes it with a polyvinyl acetate binding medium in the water bottle, in preparation for painting Photo: Narayan Khandekar.