Reg Mombassa is flipping through his portfolio, showing me pictures of one of his most infamous characters, Australian Jesus.
‘Here he is at the football,’ says Mombassa, deadpan, pointing to a picture of a man wearing a suit and thongs, distributing pies and beer to the masses. ‘And here’s Australian Jesus, not afraid to do a woman’s work.’ This time the half-naked Christ-figure is swaddled in white robes and perched inside a shell, doing his best impression of Botticelli’s Venus. ‘That’s the young Australian Jesus before he went to India. He’s got the big eyes. Oh and there’s Australian Jesus welcoming the boat people. See, he’s got a slab of beer he’s going to give to them.’
What makes him Australian, I ask.
‘He just is,’ says Mombassa, as if it was a matter of fact. Next, he turns to a pastoral scene, Aussie Jesus, Ned Kelly and John the Baptist at a picnic; homage to Manet’s painting Breakfast on the grass.
Mombassa works in a sunny studio in the attic of the house he shares with his partner, their three children and a scruffy little white dog. Art books, historical tomes, comics and ephemera line the floor along the back wall and another corner is littered with recent paintings for an upcoming show. A random collection of his work, both originals and copies, decorates the walls. It’s a calm yet chaotic space, and it feels as if there is a distinct method to the madness (but you’re probably better off not trying to figure out what it is.)
Mombassa, an artist, designer and musician, is best known in design circles for his work with Mambo, the irreverent surf wear company founded in 1984 by Dare Jennings and Andrew Rich. Mombassa’s Aussie Jesus remains as synonymous with the brand (now owned by Sydney Manufacturer Gazal) as the iconic farting dog. His drawings and paintings of his Antipodean Christ-figure, along with space monsters and other characters, have graced everything from tee shirts to home wares and he even brought some characters to life in the Heroes segment at the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony. His commercial work outside of Mambo includes album covers for his own bands and friends like Crowded House, plus work for cultural organisations (including the Powerhouse Museum) and social justice groups such as Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society. Despite many requests, he has shied away from the lucrative world of advertising, mostly because he doesn’t like to work to order.
‘I’ve done a couple [ads] for music stuff or festivals, but I’m suspicious of becoming too identified with someone else’s product,’ he says. ‘I don’t have any particular ideological problem with it; I’d just rather make up my own product.’
Enter Aussie Jesus. Born in the Bethlehem Caravan Park, with a koala, a chicken and a kangaroo bearing gifts of a football, pie and chips for the three-eyed child, Aussie Jesus is a suit-wearing carpenter who lives in the Hunter Valley (chosen for its similarity to the hills of Galilee.) ‘Partly it’s a joke. Australian football. Australian boot polish. Australian ‘ it’s like a brand.’
Mombassa himself is co-branded. Born in New Zealand in 1951, he moved to Australia with his parents in 1969 and today he feels allied with both nations and cultures. It’s no surprise then that his satirical take on Australian culture has the witty confidence of an insider and the subtle observation of an outsider. His interests are broad-ranging and the conversation flits from heretical Christian sects in the Middle Ages to pulp comics, all of which influence his social satire. Over the years he has managed make wry comment on many contemporary political and social issues including homophobia, the plight of refugees, and reconciliation, always unflinching in his take on the hypocrisy and hysteria that can accompany such debates.
‘I knew [Australian Jesus] would be highly offensive to conservative Christians but I don’t care about that,’ he says, not mincing words. ‘I don’t care about them. They’re idiots. The bible is extremely interesting but people who take it literally are very misguided.’ Mombassa has garnered a death threat or two from fundamentalist Christians who were angered by his appropriation of the biblical character, but he also reports that other Christians have approached him as fans.
Mombassa is as comfortable mining the history of western art as he is borrowing from a muscle magazine although he admits he doesn’t have a clue how it all comes together sometimes. ‘I’m fairly straightforward and practical which is surprising considering some of the stuff I do,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where the images come from.’ Although social commentary comes as naturally to Mombassa as silly sight gags (‘My main subject matter is history, religion and dick and bum,’ he confesses) he’s not an ideologue.
‘I don’t think designers or artists have a responsibility to engage with social issues. I don’t think there are rules for anything,’ he says. ‘I do it because I’m interested and it kind of inspires my work. If something makes me angry, I do [work] about it.’
‘In a sense I don’t think of myself as a designer,’ he continues. ‘I think of myself as an artist who just happens to do some stuff that goes on tee shirts and posters. I can find purely decorative work interesting but to me it’s not as interesting as something that has a bit more going on. Although I do a fair bit of decorative, pretty things as well; landscapes and things like that. They don’t have any overt political content but they do have some spiritual content ‘ just contemplating the landscape itself is a spiritual pastime.’
He laughs and does what comes naturally: he sends himself up: ‘Sanctimoniously contemplating the landscape.’
You can see Reg Mombassa’s Australian Jesus in the new exhibition In your face: contemporary graphic design, 5 August-5 November at the Powerhouse Museum for Sydney Design 06.