Mathias Kauage (c1944 – 2003) is perhaps the leading figure in the development of contemporary art in Papua New Guinea. His distinctive style, his vivid depictions of both contemporary urban life and traditional Highland custom, along with his international success, were all novel features of the PNG culture scene in the early 1990s. And his legacy is an enduring one. He has inspired a whole school of painting, with younger artists eagerly carrying forward his vision and his style, and extending them in new and exciting directions.
Kauage’s work was, from the outset, instantly recognisable, with its firm outlines, and areas of bright, flat, colour; with its admixture of traditional motifs and contemporary incidents. It is work that celebrates both the richness of PNG’s natural environment and cultural heritage, and the impacts of colonialism and the modern world. As Kauage’s reputation grew during his own lifetime (with international shows in Australia, Germany and the UK), so he began to spawn imitators and disciples. This group of followers became designated as ‘pikinini bilong Kauage’ (children of Kauage).
Initially many of these artists were content merely to imitate Kauage’s work, but as their confidence grew, they began to develop their own individual styles and voices, adapting and extending his distinctive tropes. Amongst those who have carried forward his legacy in new and interesting ways are his wife, Elisabet Kauage, and his son, John Kauage.