Kauage Exhibition @ MAA, Cambridge, UK



an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

March 18-April 18 2009

Opening event, with lecture by Georgina Beier, on March 17, from 3 pm


143594Mathias 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 by Georgina Beier. Together with her husband Ulli, Georgina influentially supported contemporary art, theatre, and literature in Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere.

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 form part of a generous donation 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). Helena Regius, Ruth Phillips, and Nicholas Thomas will contribute to a panel discussion.


15 thoughts on “Kauage Exhibition @ MAA, Cambridge, UK

  1. One question.

    Why is one of PNGs late and great modern artists being exhibited at Cambridge’s MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY? I am getting so tired of anything and everything Melanesian always being treated like some sort of artefact, some sort of relic of an ancient culture of club-wielding loin-cloth wearing chieftains. I understand how Kauage’s work ended up at the above school but it sh*ts me that they want to have a discussion about it from an art history context but with a bunch of anthropologists – Kauage was producing work up until his death in 2003. I know Georgina Beier is an artist but the moderators are all anthropologists – one of whom (a linguist) published a book called “On Negro Kings and Hottentots” … need I say more. Ok ok, I am being a bit OTT but it really gets my goat. I appreciate all these disciplines give Kauage’s art context but I don’t see this exercise as art appreciation … the only guy on the panel with any experience in pacific art or culture is a professor of HISTORICAL anthropology – which goes back to my point about this sort of international view that has the people of my country either trapped in some sort of dark ages time capsule or demonises them as modern day savages.

    Modern art in PNG/Melanesia doesn’t just replicate tribal/historical images/rituals. Its genuinely new and evolving and relevant and different to what came before it. It builds on the past and breaks it down simultaneously. Kauage was part of all of that in a truly meaningful way and I feel that the power of his work is being diluted by the inability of the western perspective to appreciate/view pacific art as anything other than totemic.

    Having said that, I am planning a day trip to Cambridge to see this.

    Over and out.

  2. Good point ‘me’, so maybe this exhibition should be in some contemporary art museum. Okay you think you can take some pics and let us know how it goes???

  3. “Me”,

    I’m actually a little bit shell-shocked. Finally I read something that could have been written by my own hands.

    You hit the nail on the head about the “international view” that views PNG as being “trapped in some sort of dark ages time capsule”. It’s very true – that view is prevalent among the ‘academics’ of this world.

    What irritates me so often is the number of ‘academics’ who teach a topic about PNG or profess to ‘understand’ PNG when they HAVE NEVER been to our country.

    How exactly does that work???? Yes, you can become an EXPERT on a country and you can be RECOGNISED for your ‘expertise’ – yet, you have never set foot in that country.

    Bloody ridiculous.


  4. All this reminds me again of the ‘bilum’ and ‘Deep Forest, Sweet Lullaby’ stories. It’s great that we have our culture and arts on display internationally, but back home here in PNG someone has to be at least tracking all of this, or keeping tabs of it all.

    What does the Cultural Commission of PNG do? Who will defend our cultural identity both locally and internationally?

  5. Me, I agree with your sentiment, but at least Kauage’s work is on display somewhere, which is better than nowhere.

    I would suggest you petition for an art gallery in PNG – because where else would be best equipped to exhibit local artists than in their own country. Kauage was reduced to selling his work in PNG on the street outside tourists hotels.

    Revolutions have to come from within.

  6. Right on Lynne!

    If we want to change the way we are viewed culturally internationally, changes have to start on our own soil. We have so many gifted artists, young and old, selling artwork on the streets that wind up mounted on some very interesting walls internationally.

  7. Iwould like to support comments by Molly and Lynn. The PNG Government has since the mid-80’s given very little support to contemporary PNG artists. Where once the National Arts School provided an exhibition space and funding for exhibitions, no such venue exists any more. Also I would like to say that comments disparaging the Kauage exhibition at the Cambridge Museum are misplaced if PNG art is to receive recognition in a global art world. From conversations with many contemporary PNG artists, they seek this recognition. The Cambridge Museum was recently the site of the grounbreaking exhibition Pasifika Styles. It showed vibrant new work from Pacific Artists living in Aotearoa. The point was to create a dialogue between this new art and the traditional art houses in the museum’s glass cases. I would also say that the comment that people on the Kauage discussion panel knew nothing of PNG is out of line. Georgina Beier, Dame Marilyn Strathern and Helena Regius have all lived in PNG. It is important that Marilyn Strathern has donated her collection to Kauage’s work because his development as PNG’s first internationally recognized needs documentation. I once gave a whole set of prints by National Arts School artists to the National PNG library and learned it is now lost.
    Helena Regius studied at the National ARts School for four years and so to say she knows nothing (or cares nothing about) PNG art of people or PNG people is not right. But the main thing is that with all the money coming into PNG from its national resources, the work of PNG artists should be recognized in the work of making national culture and display pride in PNG identity to the world. With this in mind, PNG artists need support from anybody who admires their work and provides venues to show their work.

  8. I agree Pamela. So sad to hear that the prints you donated disappeared.

    In my view a lot of this has to do with a failure to redevelop a national identity post independence. So many of us have very little appreciation of Papua New Guinean culture, instead viewing our cultural heritage as something that is defined by regional and clan roots.

    Many modern works of PNG art have a strong cultural flair, and I feel that our artists are a group that should be considered to act as “cultural ambassadors” of this country abroad. So many seem to display a fusion of styles in their work.

    I feel that this groups of “real pngeans” would have a better chance of selling this country than a ministerial delegation on some “booze up” fact finding mission in a foreign country that may have cost taxpayers a quarter of million kina with no tangible results.

  9. Molly you are absolutely right. I always think of PNG artists as cultural ambassadors and have written about that. Contemporry PNG artists think of themselves that way too. I was once able to fund Larry Santana and his family to come to Boston and the family went out to schools and museums and taught their audiences so much about PNG. Larry Santana appeared on the Public Broadcasting system and his work as “Cultural Ambassador” was reviewed by the main critic of the Boston Globe. But this sort of work has to be sustained. May I take this opportununity to allert everybody who reads this blog to a great new webpage that presents contemporary PNG artists so well: http://www.pasifiknau.com
    Also I would like to alert readers about an art project – Hailans to Ailans -that I am co-curating with Dr. Michael Mel. VP of Goroka University. It will present two exhibitions and bring over five contemporary artists from Papua New Guinea to show and/or perform their work at two venues. The first exhibition will be in London at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery, opening on Independence Day, September 16, 2009; the second at Alcheringa gallery, Victoria. Canada, opening on Nov 5. Both exhibitions will have various events so that the aritsts speak (and educate viwers) about the complex meanings of their work…It will confront and appropriate the usual stereotypes of PNG culture and people and, instead, emphasize the importance of shared histories and entanglements. Michael Mel’s peformances always addresses cultural issues and includes audience participation. You can read more about the exhibition at the Pasific Nau webpage or the Pacific Arts Association webpage. If you are in London please spread the word and get all Pacific Islanders to come. It’s amazing, but there will also be another exhibition of Pacific art. entitled EthnoGratification (at the October Gallery) going on at the same time as Hailans to Ailans. Rosanna Raymond (a Pacific Islander curator, installation and performance artist of Samoan and Maori heritage) will liase between the two exhibitions. For Hailans to Ailans she will present Cathy Kata’s bilums and bilumwear as living sculpture. These exhibitions are definitely going to challenge the old stereotypes of Pacific people and Pacific cultures and they will also showcase pride in PNG and Pacific Islander identity. I think about these exhibitions as having educational vision. Another young PNG artist Geffry Feeger has just returned from a residency supported by the Tauatai Trust in New Zealand. In their latest newsletter he is interviewed about that experience, and he also talks about being a cultural ambassador where his art communicates about bridging the past and the present. Hailans to Ailans will have a catalogue with essays and also artists interviews so that the work and the voices of the artists live on. PNG students need to have material and catlogues so they can learn to understand the rich meanings of their country’s contemporary art. Creating creating sentiments of national consciousness and pride are , as you note, integral to creating national culture. Artists present this to Papua New Guineans but also to the outside world so exhibitions of their work at home and abroad go hand in hand.
    So PNG contemporary art and artists are on the move but they need help from their govenment to recognize the significance of their work as cultural ambassadors and educators…The biggest show of contemporary PNG art is the Luk Save exhibition at the PNG Yacht Club. Shouldn’t it be at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery? Michael Somare and Bernard Narokobi once spoke about the importance of artists in contemporary PNG society but why has that early support been withdrawn. It’s a question of priorities where investing in art as integral to national culture seems to have fallen by the wayside… PNG artists need to work together and form an artists association but, unfortunately. to date this has not happened.
    em tasol…Pamela

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments. Pamela, you sound like you’re really in the thick of things there. Please email me on emmanuel@masalai.net with more information about your projects and exhibitions so I can do separate posts on them.

    Over the last couple of years I’ve been collecting what little information I can, on the PNG Museum and Art & Culture in PNG. Allot of these books that I have were printed by the ‘Institute of PNG Studies’ which now comes under the ‘Cultural Commission’ and for all intents and purposes appears to be quite dead.

    The favourites I have are of annual reports of the RuanRaun theatre in 1974 and 1975 and a couple of reports and minutes from the National Museum. (Don’t tell anyone, but I stole some of that from my Uncle Bernard).

    So from all that I noticed that back in the 70’s especially the period leading up to Independence, you could see a huge surge in trying to hammer out a national identity through combining as many of the different PNG cultures as possible and the plethora of information produced at the time was amazing. What saddens me is that, reading through all the reports at the time, they had recommendations and plans to build all sorts of art centres, theaters etc. But none of these plans ever came to life.

    On a personal level, I’ve been keen to look back first on what we did do in the past and then slowly try to reconcile that with what we can do today. Rehabilitating that National Museum and Art Gallery will be an important part of that.

    I will write more on all of this in a future post. But Pamela, please stay in touch so I can highlight your exhibitions. This also goes for anyone else out there in the world and in PNG that is doing Exhibitions and Events on PNG art and culture.

  11. Emmanual: I have written you a letter with attachments, but it won’t go through. Removed the attachments and it still won’t go through. What might be the problem? Would like to talk directly….

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