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Reg Mombassa – nutty genius

By ALEC SMART

Artist and musician Chris O’Doherty - better known by his nom de guerre Reg Mombassa – has had a fascinating and fantastical career.

Mechangaroo Celebrates New Years Eve. Artwork: Reg Mombassa


Most people are familiar with Reg Mombassa as the prolific and successful artist behind many absurdist urban landscapes that have graced posters, album covers, images for Mambo clothing and assorted campaigns.

Reg’s iconic artworks are part of Australia’s cultural landscape. In 2007, his Self-Portrait with High Pants was shortlisted for the prestigious Archibald Prize. In 2013 he unveiled a 60-metre-long artwork on the hoardings covering construction work at the Sydney Opera House.


Mombassa was also a founder member of Sydney rock band Mental As Anything, formed in 1976 by a group of friends at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School in Darlinghurst – the former gaol).

The O’Doherty brothers Chris (Reg) and Peter wrote or co-wrote some of the Mentals’ more popular songs, including Spirit Got Lost, Berserk Warriors, Brain Brain, Egypt, Apocalypso, Close Again and Nigel.


In April 2000, after the O’Doherty brothers left Mental As Anything to focus on their respective artistic careers, they continued writing and performing music together under the name Dog Trumpet. Described as “arguably the loudest soft-rock band in southern NSW” on the band’s promotional T-shirts, the slogan typifies the gentle humour that runs rife through the brothers’ creative repertoire.

Waterland IV. Artwork: Reg Mombassa


Responding to a question on his website on his favourite three artists, Mombassa replied “Bosch, Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Crumb” – which sums up the surreal, humorous, irreverent and sometimes nightmarish scenarios he conjures up from his imagination.


With typical droll humour, Mombassa revealed to us that rotting equines feature among the artistic pieces he is currently working on.

“I have just done a dozen or so pen and ink drawings of armed koalas, Australian robots, muscle horses and maggot-infested business horses.”


Familiar themes in his bold and colourful artwork include trees with eyes, skull-like cars, guitars with legs, kiwi birds, kangaroos and space ships. Sydney Opera House is also a recurring motif.

“The Opera House is an interesting subject,” he confirmed, “because it changes shape and colour according to where you view it from and what time of the day or night it is. It is also a useful graphic shorthand for indicating an Australian location. Dog Trumpet and the Mentals have both performed at the Opera House.”


Both Dog Trumpet and Mental As Anything have featured Mombassa’s paintings for album covers, but other artists who sought his surreal imagery to illustrate their music include Public Image, Crowded House, Paul Kelly and Mondo Rock.

Does he have a personal favourite? “I'm not good at favourites but I quite like the PIL cover and a single cover for Let's Go to Paradise for the Mentals, which led to me working for Mambo.”

Reg's favourite music covers: Public Image, Greatest Hits So Far + Let's Go to Paradise.


Good Causes

Mombassa’s artwork has also been used to illustrate important social and environmental issues, such as Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and A Just Australia. A cartoon of a skull smoking a cigar was utilised by Save Millers Point for their unsuccessful campaign to prevent Millers Point social housing from being sold to private owners (many of which are now rented out as Air BnB properties).


Is there a cause that's particularly close to his heart?

“Environmentalism and human rights are both important subjects,” Mombassa revealed. “Unless we solve the climate problem and reign in the cruelty, greed and tribal violence that most of us are capable of, we are doomed to a well-deserved extinction.”

Gumscape With Road And Creatures. Artwork: Reg Mombassa


Although Mombassa left Mental As Anything in April 2000, and has worked with the other band members in the interim (such as Martin Plaza in The Stetsons) has he played with the Mentals onstage since he left to pursue a painting career 21 years ago?

“Yes, Peter and I played at a 25 year anniversary with the Mentals at the Basement in the early 2000's and we also played at the Aria Hall of Fame ceremony when the Mentals were inducted in 2009.”


For the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Mombassa designed athletes’ shirts worn at the Closing Ceremony and a segment called ‘Heroes’, watched by millions worldwide. It featured two 20m-high helium filled dirigibles, twelve 6m-high inflatables, and sixteen air-filled balls that rolled around the crowd.

What inspired his work for the widely appraised sequence?

“It was loosely based on the creatures and subject matter of the pictures I had done for Mambo and for gallery exhibitions previously.”

Beachside Barbecue. Artwork: Reg Mombassa


Mombassa’s 2014 exhibition, Hallucinatory Anthropomorphism: paraphysical manifestations of the collective unconscious, perfectly sums up the dreamlike quality that recurs throughout his artwork. Has he ever experimented with psychotropic substances (like magic mushrooms) to inspire his artwork, or is his imagination feverish enough without imbibing hallucinogens?

“I have always had a lively and somewhat gloomy and paranoid imagination but I did briefly flirt with mushrooms, LSD and mescaline when quite young, but the experiences were usually quite horrific so I subsequently avoided that activity.”


Most people are unaware Mombassa originally hails from New Zealand, arriving in Sydney at the age of 18 in 1969. However, like many movers and shakers from the lands of the long white clouds that relocated to Oz, such as actor Russell Crowe, country singer Keith Urban, racehorse Phar Lap, the Southern Cross on the Aussie flag, and, controversially, Lamington and Pavlova cakes, we’ve claimed him as ours.

But after 50+ years, does he still identify as a Kiwi or call himself Australian now?

“I am now a naturalised Australian but I still have a great fondness for New Zealand and I still do a lot of pictures based on the New Zealand landscape.”


Dog Trumpet - the O'Doherty brothers


Dog Trumpet discography

After 30 years the music of Dog Trumpet went global in July 2021 in a deal with Demon Records that saw their recorded output digitally available worldwide. In Oct 2021, the band’s seven albums were available together on vinyl for the first time.

Demon Records describe the brothers’ music as “an eclectic blend of rock, psychedelic folk and semi-abstract blues; whimsical, political, curious, intimate, scientific, erotic and witty.”

“We released a new album, Great South Road, last year,” Mombassa revealed, “and we are currently about halfway through recording a new album.”


So, with ‘eclectic’ music in the pipeline and surreal artworks in creation, you can continue to expect the unexpected from the nutty genius and his fevered imagination…


Reg Mombassa

FB: www.facebook.com/RegMombassa

Website: https://regmombassa.com/

Dog Trumpet: https://dogtrumpet.net/


Chris O'Doherty, aka Reg Mombassa - the genius personified. Photo: Greg Weight


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