Mathias Kauage was an exuberant painter and a founding figure of modern art in the Pacific.
Kauage (c. 1944-2003) was born in Chimbu Province in the Papua New Guinea highlands. In the late 1960s he was employed as a labourer in Port Moresby and was inspired by an exhibition of drawings by a fellow-Highlander, Timothy Akis. Like Akis, he was encouraged and supported by Georgina Beier. Together with her husband Ulli, Georgina influentially fostered contemporary art, theatre, and literature in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.
Kauage’s work evolved rapidly. Early on he drew fantastic creatures inspired by Chimbu myth, but soon progressed to scenes of Moresby town life and political events. Embracing colour, he went on to produce major paintings around Papua New Guinea’s Independence in 1975, aspects of colonial history, and his own experience – not least his meeting with the Queen, who awarded him an OBE in 1998. His later works were often signed ‘Kauage – Artist of PNG’.
This exhibition foregrounds a previously unexhibited group of early Kauage drawings and beaten copper panels, which have been generously donated to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by Dame Marilyn Strathern (William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology, 1993-2008), who conducted fieldwork in the PNG Highlands and in Port Moresby from the 1960s onward. Visitors to the exhibition also get the chance to listen to a rare early recording of Kauage singing and playing Chimbu instruments such as a bamboo flute.
‘Kauage: Artist of Papua New Guinea’ is a revelation of Kauage’s creativity. His unique intelligence and visual inventiveness suggest new ways of thinking about the emergence of ‘modern art’ beyond the West.
On Tuesday March 17, a public lecture and symposium coincide with the exhibition opening. Georgina Beier will speak on Creating his own tradition at 2.30 pm in the McDonald Seminar Room, in the McDonald Institute (off Downing Street, directly adjacent to the Museum).