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Reg Mombassa - Artist, Designer and Musician

A Reg Mombassa design
'The best part of being an artist is the pleasure of creating new things. I mean, writing a song is great – the rest is fun too, the practising and recording and playing it, but that actual process of creation is quite intoxicating.'

Reg Mombassa, sometimes known as Chris O’Doherty, is one of Australia’s most successful commercial artists. He is perhaps the most recognised Mambo designer, a successful landscape artist and a founding member of ARIA Award-winning band Mental as Anything.

Mombassa was the driving force behind the inflatable kangaroos at the 2000 Olympics’ closing ceremony and his character ‘Australian Jesus’ can be seen on Mambo t-shirts around the nation. So where did all this creativity start, and what inspires him?

How old were you when you started painting?

I was about two or three when I started drawing. I guess all kids do that, but I was particularly keen and obsessive about it. I drew pretty obsessively throughout my whole childhood and I started painting when I was thirteen when my parents bought me a set of oil paints for my birthday. I started painting at home, copying pictures out of art books and doing a few landscapes and self portraits.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?

Yes I did. As a kid I wasn’t so acquainted with the idea of being a painter so much as a commercial artist, illustrator or comic artist. When I was a kid I loved comic books and as an adult I’ve been a fan of underground comics too. By the time I got to high school I wanted to be a painter.

Do you do a lot of painting and drawing these days?

Not so much painting these days, more drawing. I’ve just finished the illustrations to go on the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age for Australia Day. I’ve done it for the last couple of years. This year I drew Australian Jesus sticking out of the water like a flooded Harbour – slightly gloomy for a holiday picture but never mind!

These days I just mainly do my own stuff for exhibition in a gallery. I occasionally do a shirt for Mambo and the occasional graphic job.

And when you went to art school in Sydney, did that help refine your skills?

Yeah it did, life drawing was very handy – it was the first thing that really taught me how to draw. In high school I was copying pictures out of books. The most useful thing was probably meeting some interesting young people – artist and musicians – and that’s how the band Mental as Anything got together, in art school.

How did that come about?

I’d seen Martin and his friend Steve Coburn playing at an art student dance and I asked them if they wanted to form a band. We became Mental as Anything – my brother was in the band too as the bass player. We played at student parties and pubs in East Sydney and we liked it, so we kept on going with it. We were together for 20-odd years.

Did you enjoy touring with the band?

Yes, it was interesting – a chance to see different parts of the world. But by the time I left I was a bit sick of the constant touring as it had become hard to commit to doing other things. That’s why I left the Mentals about ten years ago, me and my brother left at the same time. Then we put a band together called Dog Trumpet. We still play with them – actually we played two sets at a festival last weekend. We are just finishing our fifth album of original songs.

Is music a bigger part of your life than painting and drawing now?

No, not really – painting and drawing is my day job, but I try to get in an hour or two practising and working on songs each day. I spend about a day each week recording with my brother.

When you worked for Mambo, where did you get your ideas from?

Often just from free association and looking at a whole lot of things – magazines, art books or books on tribal art or magazines about dogs or muscle men, magazines that advertise suburban houses – just a variety of sources. I took images from them to mess around with, alter them or stick things together in a free association process.

So do you come up with an idea fully before you draw it or do you have to draw lots of different versions of it?

Sometimes you get them pretty much straight away in a burst, but other times you don’t – you try out a few different things and move it around and do a few small, rough charcoal sketches.

Tell me about Australian Jesus – what’s he all about?

Well that was a Christian cult thing on the South Coast, and the guy that ran it was calling himself the Australian Jesus. We just thought it was really funny and started doing t-shirts with that character on it, and it developed a life of its own!

What does Australian Jesus represent?

Sort of like a rough, Australian version of the original Jesus – he represents a normal, reasonable person going about his business, going into a variety of situations. It’s just a customised version of Jesus which a lot of people do – people put their own agendas on universal stories or myths, whatever you want to call them.

With Mambo you were actually involved in the Sydney Olympics too. How was that?

The Olympics had asked Mambo to do something in their style for the closing ceremony as the closing ceremony is usually a bit more informal than the opening ceremony. So they asked Mambo to get something up and I got the job of designing the inflatable creatures that were going to go round the stadium, the stages for some of the bands and the athletes’ shirts.

Was it crazy having your work out on display for the whole world to see?

Yeah it was pretty strange! The guy who was in charge of my segment said to me, ‘You realise this is like the biggest one-man show in the world,’ and I said, ‘No, don’t tell me that – I’ll be really nervous!’ It was kind of funny watching all that stuff parading around, apparently a lot of people watched it – it was a strange experience.

What’s the best part about being an artist?

Probably the pleasure of creating new things. I mean, writing a song is great – the rest is fun too, the practising and recording and playing it, but that actual process of creation is quite intoxicating. It’s great to be able to make a living doing what I want, which not everyone gets to do. My father wanted to be an artist and actually had a scholarship to go to art school at 16, but his father died suddenly and he had to go get a living to support the family. So a lot of our parents’ generation didn’t get to do that sort of thing – it’s a shame really.

Is there anything about being an artist that is not so great?

The downside, I think, is that it can be a lonely pursuit. You are in your own head a lot so some artists tend to have mental illnesses at times, but maybe that’s because they’re artists and they’re like that anyway, or maybe to do with the fact that you’re inside your own head a lot. Most artists put up with a bit of that I think.

Can you name any people who have inspired you either in your music or your art?

I could name 50 or 100 artists! Bosch the Belgian painter, El Greco, Van Gogh, Marcel Du Champ, the Dada artists of the First World War, the German expressionists of the early twentieth century, underground comic artists like Robert Crumb.

In terms of music, my favourite musician of all time would probably be Bob Dylan. I really like American music and roots and English and Irish folk music and old-timish stuff.

True or false: Mental as Anything ran a contest in the 1980s where a fan could have the band visit their house and clean it.

Yes, we did that in America. We were over there supporting Men at Work. I remember going to someone’s house in Phoenix, Arizona and we washed their dog and mowed the lawn. It was hard work! Yeah, it was a gimmicky promotion kind of nonsense, but it was fun.

Is there any advice that you have for young Australians who are looking to become artists or musicians?

I guess you’ve got to believe in yourself and that’s not always easy. I haven’t always – at times I’ve lacked confidence. You have to work reasonably hard to be good at something and you have to be prepared to not earn a decent income for a long time, if not forever. I know some artists who are 50 years old and are still struggling. They’re good artists who are struggling to get any attention or to make a living out of it.

I guess the problem with art and music is that it’s so attractive as an occupation and a lot of people want to do it. It’s very competitive as well. Particularly with music now because it’s so easy to record yourself, anyone can make a record. It’s a busy, crowded field. You have to be pretty determined, you’ve got to work hard, and you also need to be lucky. Luck plays a lot into these things in terms of who you run into and who you mix with – getting the occasional lucky break is a big part of it.

So you must feel like a pretty lucky guy.

Oh yeah – it’s great when people appreciate what you do. As an artist or musician you get some sort of feedback as part of your relationship with your audience. You can’t exist separately to your audience, and that’s a good part of it.

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