Reg Mombassa: The everywhere man

TOM CARDY
Last updated 09:42 04/11/2014
Fairfax

THE FUNDAMENTALS: "From when I started painting as a teenager I wanted to be an artists and later I wanted to be a musician as well," says Reg Mombassa.

SUBURBAN SCENERY: Some of Mombassa's paintings were based on the houses his father built and that he lived in, in South Auckland and the north of Auckland.
Mombassa's absurdist cartoon style is instantly recognisable and has also featured on Mambo clothing and accessories

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There are many ways to measure artistic success and one is how often you will see an artist's work used or reproduced in different and sometimes unexpected ways. When it comes to New Zealanders, no one beats Reg Mombassa.

The man born Christopher O'Doherty - "old friends and relatives call me Chris, I suppose" - for many years created art and graphic work used by Australian surfwear label Mambo on T-shirts and other clothing.

His artistry has run parallel to his profile as a musician, including the hit band Mental as Anything in the 80s and its successor, Dog Trumpet.

Some of Mombassa's work has been controversial, including a banner depicting a naked Australian Jesus as a plump, middle-aged man, which had to be removed from a Mambo store in Sydney after protests. But it's the ubiquity of Mombassa's art, whether it's his fine art or his distinct absurdist style, which makes him a rarity.

Mombassa, who has lived in Sydney since 1969, doesn't do as much work for Mambo these days, but walk into a clothing store or the Warehouse chain and you can still see his art on clothing and accessories, including baseball caps and even men's slippers.

Mombassa is in Wellington tomorrow to speak at Semi-Permanent, a two-day conference for creatives. Having spoken at Semi-Permanent conferences in Sydney and Brisbane, where his audience has included everyone from painters and sculptors to Hollywood set designers and skateboard designers, in Wellington he will talk about his career and work. He will show images of at least 40 works in chronological order "from the first paintings I did when I was 15 and 16".

"I taught myself how to paint as a teenager by copying pictures out of art books, so I was already painting Kiwis by the time I left Auckland."

When Mombassa's family moved to Sydney, the then-17-year-old enrolled at the National Art School, but after two years he left disillusioned.

"I found it a bit uninspiring. It was a bit like high school when I thought art school would be a weird and exciting experience."

Mombassa worked as a labourer, cleaner, house painter and driver for a time, then re-enrolled in the art school, later forming Mental as Anything in 1976 with brother, and fellow artist, Peter O'Doherty.

But the fine art never stopped for the music.

"I had my first [art] show when I was 23 and a year or two before that I had started doing these suburban house paintings, based on the houses we lived in in South Auckland and north of Auckland that my father had built. I knew I was getting on to something [of a style] of my own."

Mambo asked Mombassa to design T-shirts and posters in 1986, after seeing his artwork for Mental As Anything album covers. At the same time Mombassa continued to create work largely exhibited in galleries. His work has been exhibited several times in Wellington, as well as work by his brother Peter. Some work, Mombassa says, will be part of a group show in Wellington next year.

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In Australia, he's had numerous exhibitions over the years and his stature is such that there's been the book The Mind and Time of Reg Mombassa and the documentary Golden Sandals. His work has featured on stamps and coins, replicated using fireworks for Sydney's New Year's Eve celebrations last year, and a self-portrait features in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

He says next month he'll have an exhibition of his work in Melbourne to compliment one by Mambo called 30 Years of Shelf-Indulgence opening at the National Gallery of Victoria.

He attended an artists' residency on Waiheke Island earlier this year where he exhibited work, while his old school in New Zealand, Westlake Boys High School in Takapuna, recently exhibited some of his work as part of an old boys' event.

Mombassa says despite exhibiting in public and dealer galleries, due to his profile he has sometimes encountered scepticism in some corners of the arts.

"Most artists are a bit sensitive and paranoid and I certainly am. Sometimes I think the fine-art world - some elements of them - would see me as that 'T-shirt guy' rather than a fine artist.

"But it doesn't really hamper me. I do what I want. I'm open to putting my images on anything. I have no problem with that."

His goal was always to be an artist, he says.

"From when I started painting as a teenager I wanted to be an artist and later I wanted to be a musician as well. My ambition was to avoid a day job because most of the stuff I was doing was labouring and house painting. I didn't really fancy doing that for the rest of my life. I'm very grateful that I've managed to earn a living as a musician or an artist. I work seven days a week now and I've done that for 25 years."

Mombassa's artistry has also rubbed off on his family. His wife Martina works as his assistant - often giving her views on his work, when Mombassa tends to be his own worst critic. His children have also embraced art in their own way.

Son Darcy is a hip-hop artist, daughter Lucy also studied at the National Art School and has now had a few shows and sold her work. His daughter Claudia O'Doherty is a comedian, who spends most of her time in London and Los Angeles and got a role in the Judd Apatow movie Trainwreck due for release next year.

"I do like the idea of everyone being able to appreciate art and people do now," says Mombassa.

"Thirty or 40 years ago there were very few dealer galleries in Australia or New Zealand. Now there are hundreds of them and more people are going to galleries. There is a much greater and healthier interest in art now."

- The Dominion Post

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