Debutantes: Rex Warrimou - Art Collector

Issue 75, January - March 2016

This profile appeared in the Debutantes feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2016.

Rex Warrimou, photographed for Art Collector issue 75, January - March 2016.

Art from Papua New Guinea is an area of passionate interest for dealer Andrew Baker but, with artist Rex Warrimou, the works offer a rarely seen combination of cultural depth and innovation; of international magnitude.

Warrimou’s first solo exhibition at Andrew Baker Art Dealer in Brisbane was sold out prior to its 2015 opening, with sales to institutions including the Queensland Art Gallery and Australian National University. A second exhibition in early 2016 promises to be equally exciting.

Within the Ömie people, Warrimou is, as Ömie artists agent Brennan King suggests, “Ömie royalty”. While the bark painting tradition has been a female one for centuries, it was perhaps almost inevitable that Warrimou, as son of the late Chief Warrimou and inheritor of the Ömie Creation and Dahorurajé clan stories, should adopt the bark painting tradition he had observed since he was a boy. “The ground was fertile for Rex to spring from, given his role as custodian of the old ways. The incredible sense of pride and love Rex has for his culture are what we see in his work,” says King.

His skills lay dormant until very recently. “Ömie people are fearful that mining and gas will intrude on their sacred volcano and land. Their paintings are part of demonstrating their ownership,” says Baker. The intense interest with which their work has been received in the art world is incredibly valuable to the Ömie because with this international appreciation has come the perfect platform to help protect their remote Ancestral homelands and way of life.

Among the last of the Papuan pre-contact peoples, the Ömie’s remote location in the interior mountains of Papua New Guinea has preserved their traditions. While the Ömie have always painted on bark for performance and celebrations, encroaching missionary activity in the outlying Ömie villages in the 1940s, with associated bans on traditional initiation practices and bodily tattooing, drove women chiefs to exhort artists to transfer these important designs to the barkcloth.

As author Drusilla Modjeska wrote in 2013: “In this way the Ömie not only saved their art, but gave it new form and allowed its visual language to evolve with the transfer of tattoo insignia from skin to cloth.” Nicholas Thomas, a professor at the University of Cambridge, has also noted the “relentlessly experimental” nature of their work.

Warrimou doesn’t like to travel, even to the local town, yet was elated to go to Port Moresby to see the museum in February 2015. There he viewed objects from all over the world. “His mind was blown,” King related. “He said, ‘I’m going to show the world everything – The Creation stories, beginning to end!’ Since then, every painting is packed full of exquisite detail.”

Louise Martin-Chew

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