Hanging on the Wall: The Naive Art of John Danger and Friends

I have visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) several times, entering and departing through  the noisy, disorderly airport at Port Moresby, the capital. I generally do not care much for Port Moresby – it is a grimly depressed and somewhat menacing town. But, my visits in 2003 and 2004 were brightened when I met some local artists who displayed their work by hanging it on the fence wall surrounding the Holiday Inn. The paintings are generally colorful; I suppose art experts call them primitive and naive, many of the artists being self-taught.

Several painters followed the inspiration of Mathias Kauage a man from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea who, painting for some 30 years , became famous and was recognized with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HRH Elizabeth II before he died in 2003. His family are also well known painters: widow Elisabet (Elisabeth) Kauage, sons John Kauage and Chris Kauage, and adopted son Apo Hugo. The influence of the Kauages on PNG artists can be seen in the variety paintings hanging on the fence wall at the Holiday Inn and on walls in  Art galleries around the world, and our home.

Three paintings by members of the Kauage Family: [nggallery id=16]

I got to know one member of the Holiday Inn group: John Danger Ulka, known as  John Danger. As it is written elsewhere: John Danger Ulka was born in the village of Kakagl in the Gemblog District of Simbu Province in 1969. Until he was 30 John farmed the foothills of Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain in PNG at almost 15,000 feet high. In 1999 John moved to Port Moresby and became a self- grass roots artist, painting scenes of life in PNG  from the Gulf Province to the Highlands. John’s paintings became  popular with the tourists and local people and businesses  in Port Moresby. He was featured on the 2001 Air Niugini  Calendar with a scene of a Gulf family fishing.

I liked John Danger a lot; he was enthusiastic,  friendly, modest and honest. On one of my trips he was not at his usual spot, but his excited friends grabbed a  cab and several of them took me to his home. The journey was on rutted roads to a group of shacks outside of town. It was a little nerve-wracking because I did not know if I was being kidnapped or not. We ended our visit with me taking him for tea in the very fancy hotel I stayed at; he unkempt but quite comfortable sipping tea.

I liked the art of John’s  friends, and bought many of their canvases (including my Kauage pictures). Because the oil paintings were displayed in the open they bear scuff marks, and dirty patches; in places the paint is smeared. I find the blemishes endearing. Transporting the pictures was always an adventure since even rolled up the canvases were bulky, but yet precious enough that I had to carry them as hand luggage during my long flights home.

Other artists also displayed their work at the wall: mainly carvings, and beautiful woven bilums. Bilums are bags carried by almost everybody in PNG: there is an immense range in size, shape, fabric and colors. I  bought several at the Wall and in Port Moresby, to join the bilums I collected in 1982 at Ok Tedi, now-fraying bags made of vegetable-dyed coarse natural strings. John Danger surprised me on one of my visits to him by rushing me over to a bilum lady at the Wall . She scrabbled amongst her bilums and pulled out one made for me, emblazoned with the flag of PNG and my name. They had had been waiting for the day I would turn up again to give me the bilum – I was very touched. The bilum hangs in my office with my less exuberant brag trophies of professional recognitions and credentials.

PNG bilums:[nggallery id=19]

I have many paintings by John Danger. Several of them are framed but because they are large, I cannot display many pictures on my walls, so the rest are still rolled up in storage. But, I can display  them digitally in the gallery of images below.(I suggest you view the images with the PicLens option). My descriptions, like the paintings, will appear naive  to art experts but, they are based on what John told me of his paintings when I bought them. Still: Expert and naif alike agree that the art of John Danger and his friends deserve to hang on walls other than that surrounding the Holiday Inn in Port Moresby.

Paintings by John Danger: [nggallery id=18]

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 40 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his 40 years of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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