Mambo has always been in a different league to other surf-clothing brands. While it’s incredibly unlikely we’ll see a celebration of Roxy at the NGV any time soon, the launch of 30 Years of Shelf-Indulgence at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre is no surprise. It’s been hidden in plain sight on T-shirts, surfboards and posters, but the world of Mambo, populated with farting dogs, surreal landscapes and blasphemous iconography, is at the heart of the Australian cultural consciousness.
Part-time rockstar, part-time artist Reg Mombassa – real name Chris O’Doherty –has long been in the middle of it all. “Dare [Jennings, Mambo’s co-founder] had a really simple aim, really,” Mombassa says. “He thought surf labels were just too generic, with just plain logos and minimal design. He wanted to use some interesting artists.”
Mombassa has fulfilled that criterion for almost all of those 30 years. Alongside his career as guitarist for Mental As Anything and Dog Trumpet, Mombassa is a prolific and varied visual artist, but it’s his designs for Mambo that are among the most iconic. They're dreamlike but somehow familiar visions of suburbia: a port-holed house sprouts limbs and casually discusses fascism while she walks her son the dog trumpet to school; the three-eyed Australian Jesus surveys a flooded Sydney cityscape; and a handy chart outlines the origins of several crude sexual innuendos. All adorn shirts, posters, surfboards and more.
It is inspired by a thousand different things, from tribal and classical western art, to Mexican street graffiti, but also from the Australian landscape and “trade magazines about earthmoving equipment and dogs,” Mombassa says. Everything is material for inspiration and everything counts. The end result is vibrant, prickly, and somehow encapsulates the Australian consciousness better than any political speech or flag could ever hope to.
“I call it the aristocracy of the normal,” Mombassa says. “Our everyday surroundings are actually quite interesting.
“Particularly for baby-boomer types, our ancestral Dreaming is that suburban house and yard. That’s what we remember. That sort of thing we have an almost spiritual connection to. I want to reflect that, as well as the icons of the country –thongs, beer cans, surfboards, Holdens and the Australian landscape and flora and fauna. So it’s kind of reflecting Australians back at themselves, I guess –celebrating it but also mocking it.”
For on top of the majesty of the everyday, Mombassa’s work is layered with satire, including, but not limited to, “the cult of the alpha male warrior that has governed us for the last 6000 years of history (with a great lack of success, I would say), government, big companies, the church and the aristocracy … it’s all pretty dismal, really.”
While owners and designers have come and gone, and fashions have changed, Mombassa is still there, contributing his unique take on Australian culture.
“There are new artists these days, but they’ve got broadly the same attitude,” he says. “There’s the adolescent dick and bum stuff, puns, jokes and what have you. but a lot of it is about politics and religion and history.”
And is it a little weird seeing this chaotic pop art in a gallery such as the NGV instead of on a shirt?
“It is, actually,” he says. “It’s pretty funny. It was also pretty funny when we were asked to do the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.” Mombassa describes, with dry enthusiasm, the giant blow-up beer cans with arms, legs, the head of a Balinese demon and frothing keg-tap genitals. “They scrubbed it at the last minute,” he says, though he doesn’t sound surprised. “There was also going to be a giant truck-sized blow fly that was going to float around and Jimmy Barnes was going to swat at it with an enormous flyswatter.” Also nixed.
“I’ve always been wary about working for big companies,” he says, “because your work comes second to their size and agenda. With Mambo, I just do whatever I want.”
Mambo: 30 Years of Shelf-Indulgence is running at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square until Feburary 22. Mombassa is also showing a selection of his work at Fortyfive Downstairs, Flinders Lane, until December 20. Admission to both is free.