Reg Mombassa

He is one of Australia’s most popular and idiosyncratic artists. We speak with the talented creative force about a life lived well in the arts.

You have a book coming out which chronicles 50 years of your work, focusing particularly on your landscapes.
The first work in it, I did from my bedroom window when I was 16. It has been a fiddly process sorting images because I have thousands in my catalogue. The trick is to not be too repetitive. It is more or less in chronological order plus some sections with themed subjects, such as houses, charcoal drawings, trees and telegraph poles, etc – things that have interested me over the years. I have drawn assiduously since the age of three, like most children, but more keenly I guess than other kids did. My early subject matter was battleships, soldiers and slaves being tortured. So the subject matter has never really changed that much! (Laughs) I’ve always had the two approaches – the sublime and the ridiculous or the ugly and beautiful.

You were born in Auckland; can you tell me a little more about your early life and the move to Australia? Did that shift influence your artwork, particularly the landscape?
I didn’t particularly want to come to Australia; my parents came because my dad couldn’t get work because there was a recession on in New Zealand. I didn’t like it at first, I found it very foreign, incredibly hot, the cars were all big and driving very fast. I didn’t know anyone and was quite lonely for a while but then I went to art school and got to know some people.

Relocating definitely influenced my work. The New Zealand landscape was the only landscape I had seen before coming to Australia at the age of 17. The first landscape a human engages with is going to stay with you to a great degree. The pictures in my first show at Watters Gallery were pictures of suburban homes that my father had built because he was a carpenter. He built all the houses we had lived in and we tended to move every two or three years, so we would never stay in a place all that long. Suburban architecture has been a big part over the years of the images I have done since. For non-Indigenous people in this part of the world the childhood suburban home is the closest thing we have to an ancestral dreaming.

The childhood home is significant for me and I think for a lot of other people too. It inhabits your dreams in a somewhat spiritual way. You remember the layouts of the houses, the events that happened. If you were to construct a world map for a person which is looking down on your life and drawing the movements that you make, then most of them would have heaps of scribble around the houses that you lived in and then lines shooting off to work, to holidays, going to prison etc. A lot of activity and psychological and spiritual energy is centred around the home. I have been here 47 years now, I feel comfortable here and often I am drawn to Australian landscapes that are a little bit similar to New Zealand landscapes but I also enjoy the really harsh, bizarre aspect of the Australian landscape, out west, the desert.

It’s quite scary, if I’m out drawing by myself up at Frank Watters’ place at Cassillis in that hard, flinty Australian bush on a really hot day, the insects are buzzing and you don’t know what sort of spirits are hovering around, so you feel quite anxious. Even being out on a nice sunny day in the landscape with a slight breeze, it could go wrong very quickly. The Australian landscape is particularly threatening.

I sometimes feel there is an anxiety to your work – an idyllic quality to your landscapes or search for a utopia or some idyllic suburban state?
Yes, there is something calming about being in a beautiful landscape, particularly on a sunny day or even with a slight breeze, because I like the wind. Wind interests me. There is something very pleasant about a sunny winter day feeling the wind and hearing the birds and seeing the beautiful surrounds.

I grew up as a kid who loved wandering around and we lived in semi-rural areas, outer suburbs where there would be a dairy farm over the back fence, always creeks and gullies to explore. I have always enjoyed being in the landscape and even when I was a teenager and started copying paintings, I would be drawn to the landscapes in art books. The fact that the climate is changing rapidly and humans have destroyed so much of the creation – that does get more worrying. Sometimes I do touch on the more threatening, gloomy parts of the suburban landscape in my work. I have always been frightened of other humans, weather and been generally anxious, so yes there is some element of expressed anxiety. Some of the more ridiculous genre pictures are more mischievous and more critical of human activity and human achievement because so much of it is ridiculous and ludicrous and highly stupid and violent.

Does the landscape represent something more spiritual for you?
Definitely, I tend to think there is more going on around us than meets the eye but I don’t know what it is. In some ways it would be good if the human race could put behind it all the irrational belief systems and dopey ancestral worship that causes so much conflict. I should think it’s about time that all went in the dustbin of history and we could transform our consciousness into something a little more decent or respectful. There has been such a history of bullying/intimidation of people. It would be nice if we could get beyond that and be a little less conflict oriented.

And you don’t always need a sledgehammer to get a message across …
I think in terms of humour and absurdity, that they are really important qualities that humans need generally. Often the most interesting art is being done by humourists in books, TV and film. Robert Crumb is one of my favourite artists, a great genius, and I have been influenced by him. I agree with what Robert Hughes said, that one of the most interesting artists of the last half-century is Robert Crumb. I think he says a lot about American modern life and culture, music, politics, everything – Robert Crumb speaks about it all. This is the annoying thing about the fine art world – it doesn’t appreciate people like Crumb fully or people like Martin Sharp. It puts them in the graphic art category, which is nonsense! Any art is good art – doesn’t matter if it’s graphic or a comic, as long as it’s good.

Comics were a huge influence on me. Growing up as a kid that was the only art I saw. Coming from a working class family it was just comics and advertisements in the paper and magazines that you saw. I’m interested in religion and the Bible and how to fix humans and how crazy people get about it. I’m not particularly religious myself – I went to Sunday school as a kid and bible class and the imagery is a huge part of our culture and history. Religion has had an enormous psychological, political and cultural presence.

Colin McCahon has been a big source of inspiration to you. What is meaningful to you in his work?
The blackness of the dark, scary NZ bush was often reflected in his work, because I’m interested in the history of religion, and his early paintings were all about crucifixions and later ones had religious obsessions in the imagery. One thing that has impressed me about him is for those times in New Zealand during the 40s and 50s he was radically modern in the painting he was doing. McCahon was writing biblical scribble on huge canvas blackboards and painting enormous numinous waterfalls plunging from the dark land, and he was hugely interested and involved in Maori culture, too.

Coming from that incredibly conservative place as it was back then when McCahon was growing up, there were virtually no art galleries, people put on their own art shows and the few artists and poets in New Zealand all knew each other, and so the art scene was more or less self-run. For McCahon to come out of that and do that amazing work and do what he did was very modern and radical. All my adult artist life has been here in Australia but when I left New Zealand as a teenager McCahon’s work was inspiring.

Some of your new work deals with the amalgamation of gods?
It’s about the twilight of the patriarchal gods and the violent alpha male leadership principle – people are sick of being bossed around and bullied by them. Our history has been a mountain of bones and a river of blood and that’s the result of the male warrior paradigm that has governed us. The aggressive get to rule and the rest of the people have to put up with it. They create the wars and we get sucked into them and have to suffer. We have been fortunate to live in a relatively calm part of the world here …

So you see your role as an artist as being important to express these frustrations, particularly as you have a popular profile?
I’m not sure really that artists can change things much in that respect. You just reflect the anxieties that you would hope other people are feeling. There are all sorts of weird things happening in the world now. As children we grew up with the possibility of nuclear war. I can remember the Cuban missile crisis when I was
11, I noticed that and can remember being really scared, because I could tell the adults were scared. That went on for two or three weeks and it looked likely there could be a nuclear war that could affect the whole world.

From then on I started to notice current affairs. Just growing up in the shadow of the Second World War, Dad was in the British army and Mum was in the air force working in bomber ground crews. All my uncles were in the army, and toy soldiers and war comics were around and I was very aware of it. Years earlier there was the appalling, threatening evil of the Nazis, the Gestapo, concentration camps – that stuff was all-pervading. I was just a quiet, anxious kid. I realised early on I was a bit of an outsider on the edge of mainstream society. I was a small, sickly, low-status male and I wasn’t much good at sport. Being nerdy and arty weren’t the preferred qualities at that time. I wouldn’t have it any other way though; I’m very glad I got to do this and didn’t have to be a labourer or house painter. I guess my politics is slightly left of centre, but they are also kind of village anarchist too. I don’t like leaders much and I don’t trust hierarchical, patriarchal institutions terribly much either. I’m suspicious of all these things.

You’re a musician and an artist; did travelling around the country with the band Mental as Anything benefit your art?
Definitely, particularly in terms of the landscape. When the Mentals started we were touring pretty heavily and recording, so I wasn’t doing so much visual art but after a while I started drawing in the car as we were travelling. That was the great thing, I’ve seen a lot of Australia touring with the band that I wouldn’t have necessarily accessed in my normal life. I started doing these quick drawings, and thought they would be good preparatory works or reference materials, but I started to really like them. I would colour them in sometimes on the spot or later at home. They would be exhibited just as I’d done them; I took a lot of reference photos while travelling at the time. I do a lot of pictures of roads, and the kind of views that are from a car basically. The full title on the new book is Landscapes of Reg Mombassa, Antipodean Scenery: Views From the Eyes of a Car. Because you’re either looking at the road ahead or you’re looking at the landscape from that level of the car you’re not low down and in the landscape. That’s how most people see the world; you’re exposed to it through a car window, house or motel window. Not so many people go specifically into the bush for proper bushwalking or camping, a lot of people would experience it in a more shallow way … like I do!

Having your work for the 2000 Sydney Olympics shown on such a huge world stage must have been exhilarating.
Although it was a fun experience, it was relatively stressful because you had to get it all done in a certain amount of time, and it was a complicated process because they were making enormous inflatables of my designs plus two dirigibles, which weren’t used because it was too windy, which was disappointing. They made a big, truck-size fibreglass blowfly that was supposed to go across the stadium on wires but because of the winds that night they didn’t, for safety reasons. My favourite of the blow-ups was a beer demon with a beer tap penis and froth of beery urine coming out, but some people involved in the earlier run through objected to it on religious grounds so they scrubbed it!

Do you have a set method of working? A lot of your works are mostly enclosed in a drawn frame … seemingly like they are in a portal that opens up.
Yeah, like a portal into an imaginary world … In some ways, I just don’t like going to the edge of the paper so it’s a bit like being in a ship on a square world and you don’t want to sail off the edge … so I have to contain the picture. If I’m in the studio, pictures are more considered and tightly finished, instead of the more direct and vigorous approach of the plein air work, which is obviously more spontaneous. When I’m coming up with ideas for graphic stuff or Mambo pictures and the more ridiculous genre pictures, I will often free-associate images using subject matter like a magazine about dogs and then one about earth-moving equipment, maybe a book on tribal sculpture and then a book on Australian trademarks from the 19th century, Mexican street art or a book about muscle men. I used to get a lot of real-estate magazines with pictures of houses in them and I derived a few paintings and drawings from them. For a Mambo range of six designs I might do around 200 quick preparatory drawings.

What have you learnt from going over 50 years of your work in the book? Have you gained any new insights or inspirations?
Things make sense to you more, when you get a lot of work together and look at it. You would hope you have improved. Sometimes the same subject I have done 30 years ago, I might go back and have another go in a slightly different way. I return to Frank Watters’ property regularly. I’ve been going to his place once a year for the last 10 years. All I’m doing is looking at the same trees, there’s not a great deal else there, it’s harsh, flinty Aussie bush. You’re going back to your friends the trees and capturing their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. I like to chip away at the same kind of ideas and themes in the course of a career. There are always particular aspects of a landscape that will continue to draw an artist back to it. I’m drawn to the Australian landscape, I’ve travelled overseas a lot and been to Europe, America and Asia, but they don’t really interest me that much in terms of their landscapes. In some ways I can just see the world on TV and sometimes I do actually draw straight from the TV … not quite plein air, again you have to be very quick! Sometimes you just go inside your own head or read a book and I get ideas from newspapers and magazines.

What’s your take on artists coming through in the system now?
It’s increasingly harder for young people, support-wise, I can see it’s becoming quite difficult. My daughter, my son and his partner are all good artists. Just getting a show is difficult, there are a lot of artists and not that many galleries, and the commercial side of it seems to be flabby at the moment and has been for some time, really.

I’m very grateful that I have managed to survive as a musician and artist and it wasn’t because I was particularly talented or hard-working. I was just lucky at various times to have met the right people or was around at the right time in terms of the music thing – that punk new wave explosion around 1976 – historical accidents which you happen to be involved in. It’s not all about driving it yourself or being talented, there is some aspect of luck involved. You still have to work reasonably hard and have some vague artistic talent to propel you into it. Luck can be a huge factor, and just having people support you, notice you or champion your work is important.


Reg Mombassa is represented by Watters Gallery, Sydney and Bowen Galleries, Wellington, New Zealand.

Courtesy the artist, Watters Gallery and Bowen Galleries. 

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related