Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spotlight: Mathias Kauage

Every so often I will try to do a SPOTLIGHT section on Papua New Guineans just because I feel that there is a lack of knowledge about our history and that we are not keeping proper record of people who have and are making an impact in the different facets of PNG society and culture.

After reading an entry on the Masalai blog on Mathias Kauage I thought to myself, Mathias Kauage is not a name that most Papua New Guineans my age would be familiar with, not unless they're art students studying at UPNG (I assume).

Mathias Kauage was born in Simbu province in 1944. He migrated to Port Moresby in 1968 and found work as a maintenance worker. He visited the first-ever art exhibition by a Papua New Guinean artist (Timothy Akis) in the late Sixties and struck by what he saw there decided that he could do equally well - if not better. After meeting Georgina Beier (the British-born artist/educator who had originally encouraged Akis) Kauage went on to study under her supervision, and within a year had indeed produced a sufficient body of work to hold his own exhibition.

"Kuage is the sole inventor of a new art form and the only artist in Papua New Guinea whose work portrays the urban environment. The spirit of his Chimbu tradition and the excitement of invading technology are bound securely together. His motor cars, aeroplanes and helicopters glow with the colours of a Chimbu warrior in full ceremonial dress. He grafts the splendour of a disappearing culture onto jumbo jets, motor bikes and politics. He accepts the intrusion of a foreign culture with patience, gentleness and intelligence. He is an inventor and a survivor."
- Georgina Beier

Admitted to the National Arts School in 1972, Kauage began exhibiting regularly and his lively drawings of modern technology and life in town made his work popular with expatriates and the new PNG elite. Kauage flourished, it was probably the most intensely productive period in the Papua New Guinea contemporary art world to date.

In 1987, he was one of four winners in the prestigious annual Blake Prize for religious art in Sydney, Australia. In fact the National Gallery of Australia described him as "Papua New Guinea’s best-known contemporary artist"

In 1994 after meeting Queen Elizabeth II he presented her with a picture that he had painted showing himself and 'Queenie' meeting.Kauage continued to paint and in 1996 he visited the Beiers in Germany where he took part in a massive street art project. He painted a number of large concrete columns, turning them into joyous, vibrantly coloured art-works, which stand out as a celebration in otherwise ordinary streets. In Berlin he painted a Mercedes bus for a gallery which had exhibited a series of his screen prints. He painted he said, "lovely ladies all over it". Later in 1998, Kauage was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

Over the years as Kauage's success and fame grew, he received many government commissions as well as many invitations to exhibit his work in Europe, Africa, and Australia. His best known works include figures he designed for the mosaic fa├žade of the new PNG Parliament House as well as a series of images he made of the death of Highland leader Iambakey Okuk, which now hang in the National Gallery of Australia. However, Kauage's colorful imagery has also been selected for book covers, stamps, and covers of magazines, including the July edition of Australia's Art Monthly. Whilst widely recognised overseas - four of his paintings were bought by the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art for more than AUS$22,000 - Kauage, like most contemporary artists struggled to make a living.

Mathias Kauage died in May 2003 at the age of 66. He left behind his wife and children, one of whom (Chris Kauage) is now also an artist.


  1. Great write up Illaine, yes we certainly need more coverage like this out thereon our culture and arts. Keep up the good work and thanks for the link!!!

  2. Probably this Kaptein Kuk was not painted by Mathias Kauage himself, but by some member of his family. Sorry, but I have my doubts...

  3. Anonymous,

    How can you tell? I'd be interested to know.


  4. This painting is more in the copy-style of Hugo Apa, Siune and Elizabeth Kauage than in the original style of Mathias Kauage. May be Kauage made the design with pencil (as usual) and somebody put the colours (that is possible!!).Compare with the works of Apa and Siune reproduced in the book "Contemporary Art of PNG" by Susan Cochrane with "authentic", "full" Kauages. I mean, Kauage´s paintings were more "fresh", vivid, "primitive" than this. But, who knows???. I would never buy this picture as a work by Kauage, but as a imitation of his style.