ULLI BEIER | Introduction to catalogue: Mathias Kauage: a retrospective
MATHIAS KAUGE WAS BORN in Chimbu country in the Highlands of New Guinea around 1945. During his childhood the Chimbu were still subsistence farmers and then still celebrated their big pig-exchange feasts. They were already governed by the Australian administration and the Catholic church was firmly established.
As a small child Kauge witnessed the penetration of his homeland by foreign invaders who were something unimaginable. They came in bizarre machines:
"A helicopter passed over me first. I went to get a bow and arrow. I sat down on top of the mountain and I wanted to shoot the bird..."
Kauage was sent to mission school, but he ran away because his teacher beat him. Like many young Highlanders he became a labourer on the Australian owned coffee plantations. In the mid-sixties he drifted into the capital Port Moresby, where he found employment as a cleaner in the Administrative College.
Life in Port Moresby fascinated him and frustrated him. He was fascinated by the mixture of people and cultures and by the cars, and motorbikes, the airplanes and helicopters. But he was deeply frustrated, because he had to do a boring job, for a minimum wage and suffer the insults and humiliation from a racist labour overseer. As an illiterate worker with no skills he had no hope of leading a more meaningful existence.
Kauage's life suddenly changed on 28 February 1969. On that day Akis of Tsembaga, a young man from Simbai Valley exhibited his drawings at the University of Papua New Guinea. Akis' artistic career had been meteoric.
After working with Georgina Beir for only six weeks, he exhibited thirty drawings depicting the birds, animals and plants of his native forest and established his reputation as the first truly contemporary artist of Papua New Guinea.
Georgina did not want Akis to feel lost and embarrassed amongst a crowd of university lecturers and public servants. She had therefore arranged for the highland labourers to be invited to the exhibition.
Kauage was among them and he was so impressed by this strange and puzzling event, that he decided to make drawings himself. But Kauage was totally lacking in confidence and so he began to make clumsy copies of illustrations he saw in school books. Through a friend he sent these drawings to Georgina. They were so uninteresting, they did not seem worth bothering about; but when Georgina finally met Kauage, she realised that these pitiful scribbles did not reflect the personality of the man.
Kauage was powerful but frustrated person, "rather like a volcano waiting to erupt." It took many weeks, before Kauage revealed any originality in his drawings at all - but Georgina never lost faith in him. Once he had made his first real breakthrough, his life totally changed. He became an immensely prolific artist who worked with amazing energy. In a special issue of the magazine Kovave (1970) Georgina has described this first outburst of creative energy:
"The first series of drawings that one can really call his own were insects, which he claimed to be accurate representations of Guinea Highlands. He was at the stage still too inhibited to admit that they were his own creations."
He worked on a series of horse and riders which reminded one of the circus bareback riders, where horses are gaily decorated. These were in fact inspired by horses that he had seen on the mission station in Kundiawa. But soon his imagination utterly transfigured the memory: riders were floating in the air, above the horses; horses' bodies were built up of an intricate pattern of faces.
Kauage then started his romantic period. Boys flirting with girls. All the figures were naked of clothes and naked of sex. But in spite of these desexed figures, there was no difficulty in determining boy or girl.
When he later drew breasts on the girls, he simultaneously gave them shorts and panties of just a brand of pattern. The boys and girls never touch. The eternal these was: "me laik holdim hand bilong meri - meri no laik." The figures had a liquid, floating quality. Kauage, the giant, wanted to fly, as all the girls and boys were flying. But boy never succeeded in winning the girl.
The courting sequence over, Kauage began to draw lonely but more mature figures of men and women accompanied by animal fantasies. His women began to wear their band of pattern with an patch in the vital area.
Immediately after this came a series of magnificent mothers. Big, powerful all-mother women, like goddesses. The frilliness of the early period is gone. These mothers are not floating or flying: they are statuesque protectors.
Kauage soon gave up his job as a cleaner... to devote himself entirely to his art. Having a great deal of time on his hands, he soon became frustrated: he wanted to make twenty or thirty drawings a day, but even his fertile imagination could not produce new ideas continuously.
Georgina then bought him sheets of copper and aluminum. Beating out reliefs he could use all his formidable physical energy, and at the same time work on one idea for several days.
For several years Kauage worked mainly in this medium. In the mid seventies, he began to make acrylic paintings and this has remained his favorite medium. His work has been exhibited widely in Australia, Germany, Great Britain and the US. He is undoubtedly Papua New Guinea's most prolific artist.
The exhibition for which these words were written was held at the City Museum, Bristol in England, from 14 October-18 November 2000. Kauage died in May 2003 at the age of about 58