First published in SPECTRUM, August 2018.
Reg Mombassa has always been strangely allergic to power. When the iconic artist and musician, whose birth name is Christopher O’Doherty, was a 12-year-old boy in New Zealand, he was granted authority over his schoolmates. He developed physical symptoms as a result.
“I was made head prefect in primary school and developed a stammer because it didn’t suit my personality at all,” recalls Mombassa, who’s kind and softly-spoken with sharp, sunken cheekbones. New Zealand vowels still linger in his speech. “We had a page on our report devoted to our achievements. Mine was blank. I wanted to be a part of nothing. I could never, ever join a political party.” He smiles wryly. “Even playing in a band is difficult for me.”
Mombassa is revisiting this formative childhood moment in the attic of the Glebe terrace, where he’s lived with his family for the past two decades. Earlier, I’d climbed a rickety ladder and clambered onto the sun-splashed landing – amid calls of “be careful!” – expecting to find cardboard boxes and dusty photo albums rather than the engine room of Mombassa’s creative life. Plates covered in thick globs of paint are scattered across a picnic table near the window, next to a model of a lemon-yellow fibro house built by Jim, the artist’s father. Canvases, propped against every surface, feature landscapes and streetscapes that dance between the surreal and the familiar.
At 66, Mombassa, wearing a grey V-neck jumper and currently preparing for a survey show at the Manly Art Gallery, seems oddly ageless. I can think of few artists whose visual lexicon – olive-green hills dotted with anthropomorphic trees, crayon-bright barbecues and boneyards – has come to symbolise the modern Australian psyche, its sunny promise and simmering cultural anxieties. It’s a perspective that feels of-the-moment.
“When I first started making art, I worked as a house painter and labourer and it was good, because you’d meet other people besides inner-city arty types,” he says, asking if I’ve read Sapiens, Yuval Harari’s study of humankind’s flawed cultural structures. “The problem with the political divide now is that people only mix with people like themselves, which is a bad thing for humans. The political stuff has always been part of my subject matter. I’ve always reflected on things that make us anxious and fearful.”
Mombassa grew up in the suburbs of South Auckland and has drawn compulsively as long as he can remember. “My father was Irish Catholic and had a scholarship to go to art school but when his father died suddenly, he had to become a carpenter so it wasn’t a middle-class household – all I knew were comics and graphic art.” His family relocated to Sydney in the late ’60s and Mombassa attended the National Art School in the mid-’70s, forming the new wave band Mental As Anything with art students Martin Plaza and David Twohill. His early impressions of Australia (“At first I hated it! It was hot and the cars were faster and bigger”) loom large in his early paintings, studies of suburban houses on quiet cul-de-sacs, that teeter between domesticity and something more sinister.
But this outsider sensibility would find its purest expression in his body of work for Mambo, the label and art movement, started by Dare Jennings, that skewered and celebrated Australian identity with nods to pop art, surf culture and agitprop. Mombassa’s designs – especially Australian Jesus, a cartoonish saviour that dispenses pies at the football, preaches to three-eyed kangaroos and gives sermons against bigotry – combine absurdist humour with searing critique of conservatism. For a generation of suburban teenagers (myself included – I spent most of the early ’90s coveting a Mambo wallet), his vernacular was a gateway to understanding the failings of a culture that was marketed as idyllic. Not that Mombassa is convinced.
“I think that art is often preaching to the converted – but we did a Mambo show last year and during a panel, a woman in the audience thanked me because Australian Jesus changed her attitude towards her fundamental Christian upbringing,” says Mombassa, who’s a fan of Francis Bacon and the American post-war artist Robert Crumb. “I was Christian until I was 13 and [those values] are hard to get rid of. Right now, there seems to be this swing towards religion. I think it’s a reaction against secularism. I hope it’s just an adjustment.”
In 2016, Mombassa was a finalist in the Blake Prize, his entry Procession, Upper Hunter Valley recasting the crucifixion against a dystopian backdrop, sparked by Australian mining giants. In 2001, he drew government ire when he designed a T-shirt for Greenpeace, featuring dogs strapped with suicide belts, to protest a nuclear reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights.
“The Catholic University recently bought a Jesus with a bleeding cruciform,” laughs Mombassa, who still plays in Dog Trumpet, his long-time band with his brother Peter, also an artist. “I thought that was brave! I’m lucky Australia is a pretty tolerant place.
Over the last few years, Mombassa’s work has tackled everything from climate change to refugee rights. A 2013 work, Fractured Koala, nails the way the government’s policy towards asylum seekers shatters the country’s friendly global image. But he’s also been reflecting on his own artistic journey and the corrosive nature of toxic masculinity. Simplisticism, Recent Developments in Visual Philosophy, his 2017 show at Watters Gallery, where he’s shown since the mid-1970s, starred works such as Patriarchal God, a bronze deity with a row of phalluses for a beard and a skeletal business male with leaking bones, a memento mori for the boy’s clubs that still rule the world.
“By the time I was 13, I realised that I was a low-status male – small, thin and sickly,” he says. “When you make art and read books, you realise that you’re on the outside of society. I started to resent being bullied by more powerful males. That’s how society has been structured. I think a lot of men are questioning it and realising that it’s not such a good thing.”
I started to resent being bullied by more powerful males.
If Mombassa has a solution, it’s one that’s typically circumspect.
“Now, ‘don’t bully’ and ‘be kind’ are my only commandments,” he says. “To be kind to animals, to be kind to other humans, to be kind to nature. It seems like a good idea.” He pauses for a minute and grins. “I’m still working it out.”