Have a close encounter of the Reg Mombassa kind

Reg Mombassa on 40 years of music and art ahead of Canberra exhibition Psychedelic Realism

Close Encounters of the First Kind by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

Close Encounters of the First Kind by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied


This week sees 40 years of Reg Mombassa's artwork take over aMBUSH Gallery.


Growing up in South Auckland, Reg Mombassa didn't know what a painter was. But even without paintings or art books in the house, he knew he wanted to be an artist.

"I loved illustrations and I loved comics and I thought that's what being an artist was," Mombassa says.

"By the time I got to high school and did art at high school, I obviously became aware of all the great painters of the western tradition and started having an interest in being an actual painter.

"I started copying impressionist and post-impressionist landscapes out of art books when I was 15 to teach myself how to paint but also I loved those pictures and had that interest in the landscapes."

It was about that time Mombassa, real name Chris O'Doherty, also picked up the guitar for the first time.

"It as soon as I wanted to play music, I wanted to do both things," he says.

"Maybe I would have been better off choosing one and concentrating on that, but I didn't manage to do that."

The exhibition Psychedelic Realism is a "mini-survey" of Reg Mombassa's career as an artist. Picture: Supplied

The exhibition Psychedelic Realism is a "mini-survey" of Reg Mombassa's career as an artist. Picture: Supplied

Thankfully, for fans of both Mombassa's artistic work and with bands Mental as Anything, Dog Trumpet and The Pinks, he didn't just stick to one art form.

Of course, the two mediums - while completely different outlets - have a little bit of crossover when it comes to content. Mombassa likes to think it's because they come from the same part of the brain.

"I don't see too much of a difference."

But he's also been doing both, simultaneously, since he was a teenager, and when both careers started to take off, they did so at the same time.

At 23, Mombassa had his first art show at Watters Gallery in Sydney. Shortly after, Mental as Anything started making a name for themselves.

(Incidentally, just days after this interview, Mental as Anything's frontman Andrew "Greedy" Smith died from a heart attack).

"The first few years of the Mentals it was pretty much constant recording and touring, so my art career went on the backburner a bit until I had a one-man show in 1986 and also started working for Mambo that same year, so then the art kind of took over more, I guess," he says.

"But even that first period of the Mentals I was still drawing and painting and doing stuff on the road, I just wasn't exhibiting as much."

Gumscape with Road and Creatures by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

Gumscape with Road and Creatures by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

It's at this point in his career that his latest exhibition, Psychedelic Realism, kicks off.

Showing at aMBUSH Gallery at the Australian National University, Mombassa says the exhibition is a "mini-survey" of his life's artistic work, starting from his time as an art student, right up to some of his most recent work.

With more than 70 works, Psychedelic Realism includes pieces from Mombassa's private collection, as well as posters and original artwork from his time designing for surf brand Mambo. It's also his largest exhibition to have come to Canberra.

"I don't usually have art shows where it is one idea repeated many times, I've always tended to have shows that are a mixture of suburban and rural landscapes because I've always enjoyed painting landscapes since I was a teenager," Mombassa says.

"I kept it up, particularly when travelling with bands - I would often draw while I was travelling and I still do that. But you have to draw pretty swiftly - you have to see something that interests you and draw it swiftly - and I'll often colour them back in my studio or else I'll take reference photos on the road.

"So all that touring with bands was a good way of getting material for a landscape artist, but also, I have always done the more sort of absurd, graphic stuff like the stuff I did for Mambo, but I also do it for my own interests as well. Most of my shows have been a mixture of the two kinds of approaches."

Beach Cottage, South Coast by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

Beach Cottage, South Coast by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

Just as Mombassa's shows are split between his two approaches to art, his time is split between his two crafts. His days are for his art "because the light is better" and evenings are for his music.

As Mombassa prepared for this last exhibition, he was releasing Gravity, the latest track from Dog Trumpet, the rock band he formed with brother Peter O'Doherty. The band is set to release its first album in seven years in May 2020.

It should come as no surprise that Mombassa is continuing with art and music more than four decades on. The 68-year-old says he will maintain his two careers as long as he physically can.

"You're constantly [inspired], you just have to look at the news or read the newspaper to become either angry or slightly anxious about what's going on in the world," he says.

"One of my new themes that I have explored a bit in the most recent show in Sydney which was in June, was robots because I'm fascinated about robots and algorithms.

The Temptation by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

The Temptation by Reg Mombassa. Picture: Supplied

"When we get the thing called the technological singularity - which is when we have full artificial intelligence, which we haven't achieved yet. No one knows what will happen because the robots will be so intelligent that they might decide to get rid of us.

"It's an interesting possibility but apart from that, robots and algorithms will take the jobs off a large portion of the population in the next 20 years so that's going to be a readjustment for the human range. If we survive the climate problem."

Mombassa says it's not his job to point out these topics - "people are already aware of the fact that things are going wrong with climate and that governments aren't often doing anything to deal with it".

His work is - and has always been - a reflection of what he sees around him.

"If it's a landscape, you're just looking at the natural world and trying to portray some of the beauty and the energy and the weirdness in the picture," he says.

"That's a more direct thing, whether it's a plein air kind of thing, even if you're in a car speeding through the bushes, you're responding immediately to the natural world.

"As for the other stuff, it's a mixture of popular culture and references to history and politics and a little bit of scatological adolescent humour in there as well."

  • Psychedelic Realism is at aMBUSH Gallery until February 20.

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