Mathias Kauage (c1944 – 2003) is the leading figure in the story of contemporary art in Papua New Guinea. He was an artist of extraordinary power, originality and vision – who founded an entire school of painting. During his lifetime he exhibited internationally in Europe, America and Australia. His works are held in the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of PNG, the British Museum and the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow.
He had a long and happy association with the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, having his first solo show in 1994. (His unforgettable appearance at the private view in his full ceremonial feather-headdress was recorded by the Independent.) In 2000 the gallery mounted the first major retrospective of Kauage’s work.
Born around 1944 in a remote village in the Simbu (Chimbu) highlands, Kauage had first contact with white people only when he was twelve. An Australian doctor arrived ‘in a big bird’ to vaccinate the villagers: Kauage bit the doctor on the arm – an incident recorded in his painting ‘Big Shoot’, now in the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology. (Rebecca chose the picture for the ‘My Favourite Painting’ feature in Country Life, 15 April 2009)
As a young man Kauage moved to Port Moreseby, the capital of PNG. There, while working as a school janitor, he began drawing, having seen the work of Timothy Akis, the first PNG artist to hold a western-style exhibition. Working under the mentorship of German artist Gerogina Beier at the National Arts School, Port Moresby, Kauage began to evolve his own personal vision – graphic, schematised, and blazoned with strong colour. He learnt printmaking techniques and copper-beating, as well as developing his control of his preferred medium - acrylic on canvas.
Kauage’s subject matter often deals with the juxtapositions and tensions of his two worlds, the stone-age life of his village, tied to the rhythms of nature and the ceremonies of traditional culture, and the ever-changing modern world of cars, trucks, helicopters and aeroplanes, of social diversity and Christian teachings, that threatens to impinge. His images had an immediate power and appeal that commanded attention – and admiration.
In 1997 Kauage was awarded an OBE for his services to art. He died in 2003. His distinctive style was also adopted by several of his friends and family, including his wife, Elizabeth Kauage, his son Djon Kauage, and his friend, Chris Kauage (no relation). Their works too have real merit, and continue to explore the interface between indigenous and contemporary traditions.
Listen to Mathias Kauage playing the Jew's Harp: