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Feathers of the Gods: On the Director's Wall

By: Frank Howarth, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 26 Nov 2013

An office wall says a lot about the occupant and the organisation, especially if that occupant is the Director of the Australian Museum.

Feathers of the Gods: On the Director's Wall

Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

This story is an extract from our new book, Feathers of the Gods and Other Stories from the Australian Museum, in which scientists, collection managers, coordinators, conservators, archivists and volunteers share their favourite tales inspired by our collections.

So what should be on my office wall?

If our focus at the Museum is on nature and cultures, what could I distil from those broad categories that could appear on a wall? To represent nature, I chose to look at the world in miniature, through scanning electron microscope images of minerals and animals. At this scale, the natural world is extraordinarily beautiful.

To capture cultures, the creations of people, is a much more complicated task. One of the questions I am most often asked is, why does the Australian Museum collect art? For many cultures, change is captured in and expressed through art – think how many artists have captured great moments in history – so the Museum concentrates on the art of first peoples that reflects development and social change.

One of the Aboriginal artworks I have in the office celebrates the importance of Australian football to the Tiwi Islanders: the artist has adapted a traditional Tiwi sculpture to show a football player leaping for the ball.

The largest section of the Museum’s Pacific collection comes from Papua New Guinea. What objects or images might capture some aspect of that dynamic, complex and fast-changing nation? As I walked through our store, pulling out racks of paintings from Papua New Guinea, the work of Mathias Kauage caught my eye.

Kauage’s vibrantly colourful art displays an almost naive approach but with a complexity of expression and of subject. Although well known as an artist in Western Europe, Kauage is less recognised in Australia, which is a great pity. His work captures the period of rapid social change associated with Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia in 1975. 

Mathias Kauage was born in 1950 in the Chimbu Province of the New Guinea Highlands. He grew up as western culture was having an intense impact on his country, especially in the Highlands, something he went on to chronicle in his art. When he was about 17 years old, he moved to Port Moresby, initially as a labourer and cleaner. The formative moment for Kauage occurred in 1969, when he went to a show featuring the work of the then emerging Papua New Guinea artist Timothy Akis.

The art show was held at the university in Port Moresby, and it was here that Kauage met Ulli and Georgina Beier. Ulli Beier was a lecturer at the university, and Georgina was working to develop visual arts and artists in Port Moresby. It was the beginning of a long association, and Georgina in particular became instrumental in bringing Kauage’s work to a high level of expression and to the world outside Papua New Guinea.

Kauage’s initial artistic output featured simple, often fantastical stick figures. He progressed to more complex monochrome line drawings, frequently expressing more personal feelings. His next phase involved beaten copper and aluminium panels.

During the 1970s, Kauage began to use vibrant colours in his paintings. Although despairing of what he perceived as the steep cultural decline of the Highlands as westernisation took hold, he remained proud of his original home in Chimbu Province. The painting in my office dates from this period, when Kauage celebrated the rise, and fall, of Chimbu politician Sir Iambakey Okuk, who became Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea in 1980.

By the time of his death in 2003, Kauage was the best-known contemporary artist in Papua New Guinea. His work is not to everybody’s taste – indeed, a former Director of a major Australian art gallery described his work as ‘horrible’ on seeing it in my office – but it does capture the vibrancy, change and enigma that is Papua New Guinea, and that is why it is on the wall.

Frank howarth
Director
Australian museum

For more stories like this see Feathers of the Gods page.