Winter 2002

Reg Mombassa (text in full)

Mambo theology

Even for an outfit as art-conscious as Mambo, the clothing company’s relationship with Reg Mombassa, probably its most significant collaborator, is unusual. In the sixteen years that he has worked for Dare Jennings, Mambo has been the primary outlet for Mombassa’s warped, sometimes puerile, but fundamentally humanist vision. ‘Dare is like one those medieval patrons of the arts,’ says Mombassa. ‘In a more modest, less brutal way.’

Nor is vision too strong a word. Using Mambo as his conduit, Mombassa has succeeded, like any serious artist, in creating his own instantly familiar, internally consistent world. While the imagery is contemporary – suburban bungalows, football matches, factory chimneys and big-gutted blokes guzzling from cans of beer – the sensibility is a cross between Dadaist scandal-mongering and the grotesquerie of northern European painters such as Brueghel and Bosch. ‘I’m a man and I’m crazed with lust most of the time, like most men are,’ he confesses. ‘When you get outside that for a minute, you can see how ridiculous it is and all the bad things that have resulted from the dominance of that kind of macho, testosterone-driven culture.’

Mombassa is too self-critical to see himself as a moralist, but his abiding subject is human folly. ‘Very much so,’ he agrees. ‘Human idiocy, greed, evil and violence. I’m obsessed with that, probably because I fear it. I fear it in myself, because I’m an idiot, too.’

Born in New Zealand in 1951, Mombassa – then named Christopher O’Doherty – moved to Australia with his parents in 1969. He had always drawn obsessively and he enrolled at the National Art School in Sydney, supporting himself with jobs as a builder’s labourer, cleaner, house painter and railway worker. While at art school, he formed the rock group Mental as Anything – he sang and played guitar. By the time he joined Mambo, they had released five albums. Asked how he sustained parallel careers as artist and musician (his current band is Dog Trumpet), he offers a typically self-effacing explanation: ‘I pride myself on my lack of professionalism and my clumsiness.’

Mombassa admired the conceptual art produced by his friends, but he felt compelled to make images. He creates twelve or so Mambo T-shirts a year and three or four posters. He fills his notebooks with hundreds of drawings and shows them to Jennings, who selects his favourites. ‘Dare has a good eye for what’s going to appeal to people, which I don’t really,’ says Mombassa. He uses dusty coloured pencils to build up dense, almost luminous areas of colour layer by layer and defines the outlines with charcoal. As a child, he loved comics such as the Beano and he tops and tails his wittily perverse guides to ‘Mambo Theology’, ‘Mambo Science’ and ‘Mambo Sexual Politics’ with panels crammed with his own childlike, hand-lettered text.

‘Mambo celebrates Australian popular culture,’ says Mombassa, ‘but it also makes fun of it and it’s quite critical at times of certain political institutions and figures. In some ways, I see my role as being like a buffoon who makes fun of mainstream things that irritate me. It’s an opportunity to rant and rave in a semi-public way. A lot of artists just rant and rave privately, because only a few people will see their work.’ Earlier this year, Mombassa designed a T-shirt protesting against plans to build a nuclear reactor for research at Lucas Heights in the Sydney suburbs. ‘Mr and Mrs Sydney Australia would prefer not to have a nuclear reactor situated halfway up their arse,’ says the image, and a poll suggested that 77 per cent of Australians felt the same way. (A Sydney daily newspaper ran the headline ‘Mambo Swells Nuclear Protest – T-shirt Blasts Reactor Plan’ in September 2002.) The Federal Minister for Science condemned Mombassa and Mambo for displaying ‘an appalling lack of judgement’ and misinforming the public and accused the artist of being a ‘commercial opportunist’. In fact $A15 from the sale of each shirt was set aside for Reaction, the anti-reactor campaign, and Mombassa had donated his design. Once again, his knack for hallucinatory anxiety had hit the public nerve.