If Green Day sang that the Jesus of American suburbia is a lie, Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) offers a surreal Aussie equivalent: the Jesus of our suburbia is a regular guy, eating a pie, wearing a tie, with a third eye.
Mombassa was a member of iconic Australian rock band Mental As Anything before becoming one of Australia’s most recognisable visual artists and helping to establish the fame and fortune of the Mambo surfwear brand.
The release of Murray Waldren’s beautifully-produced biography of Mombassa, The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa, highlights just how prominent Christian, or ‘neo-Christian’, themes are in his artwork. Lauded as a pop culture artist, Mombassa self-identifies in a more religious fashion: “It’s like being a priest. To some extent, it’s a calling”, he tells Waldren. His “Self portrait with beard and plastic ring”, painted last year, is an obvious Christ-figure, with the ring as a halo.
Mombassa started painting his ‘Australian Jesus’ character in the mid-1990s and he has been a vehicle for political messages, cultural ‘contextualization’ of religion and complete whimsy ever since. My favourite Australian Jesus picture has him at the football, where he miraculously converts five meat pies and two cans of warm beer into enough to feed and water 40,000 fans at the SCG…”And the beer was cold. It was good”.
The Australian Jesus of Mombassa’s more political pictures ought to be an asset to many Christian preachers, for they show ‘Jesus’ welcoming boat people with an olive branch, taking solar-powered showers and keeping ‘sustainable furniture’. He seems in many ways to be akin to the Jesus found in the biblical Gospels. He’s a friend of the unlovely, the needy, the desperate and the dislocated.
Some of Mombassa’s Australian Jesus characters are a bit harder to match with the traditional figure of the Scriptures, but not that far off course. In one painting, his ‘Transcendental Australian Jesus’ is “not afraid to do a woman’s work”. He is depicted breastfeeding an infant, Madonna style, with one of his three breasts as he perches on a stool in a typical Mombassa backyard scene: weatherboard house, lawn, three telegraph poles invoking the Easter story. Amidst the bizarre imagery, there’s still something of the Jesus of history there—he’s a radical, not a wowser; he’s a giver not a taker; he’s loving and parental, not a tyrant. Perhaps the shock value of the image brings us closer to the truth than many a bishop might think.
Mombassa admits he hasn’t read the Bible through and thinks “the Jesus story is a psychological invention”, but he nevertheless describes himself as “nominally a Christian, and the Christian religion is my culture”. As a child, he used to pray the Lord’s Prayer “because it seemed like a good backstop”, but with no real conviction. He has problems with the institutional church and “hopes there are better ways of doing it than by being enthralled by some authoritarian religion, which does all your thinking for you”. It’s as if he is still on a journey to find the naked body of true Christianity underneath its strange and off-putting costumes.
The ‘Australian Jesus’ character began as a clean-cut, suit-donning middle class type, appearing in typical Mombassa suburban settings, before he journeyed to India, went all hippy and grew his hair long. This transformation highlights Mombassa’s struggle with the suburban/transcendental/bohemian divides. On the one hand, he admires the simplicity and familiarity of the family home, the easy-going neighbourhood life and the challenges of living well in a culturally ‘small’, albeit it warm and loving, environment. These are all strong themes in Waldren’s biography.
Australian Jesus is Mombassa’s attempt to find the sacred within the profane, the divine within the ordinary
But on the other hand, no ordinary life is really that ordinary, and Mombassa’s wilder imaginings are really just an exploration of what lies behind the cladding of our weatherboard hearts, the darker, stranger impulses that shape us. He wants to set us free from society’s restrictions, all the while honouring the basic goods of life: parents, children, a home, a backyard to play in. He wants both the immanent and the transcendent. Australian Jesus is Mombassa’s attempt to find the sacred within the profane, the divine within the ordinary.
The most Christmassy of Mombassa’s Jesus pictures is also his most Australian. It depicts baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, in the Bethlehem Caravan Park. The ‘three wise animals’ are in attendance: a kangaroo giving a case of ‘Asylum Bitter’; a chook bearing a meat pie and chips; and a koala proffering a footie. The sun is shining, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are in the background, and the world is at peace.
I imagine most people find something absurdly idyllic and desirable in this scene, that in an Australian way it taps into deep human desires for both the enjoyably ordinary and the excitingly transcendent. It’s Christmas during summer, divinity in the caravan park, bush theology, with a side of hot chips. It’s where Christmas Day meets Australia Day, myth and reality bound together. As C.S. Lewis said, “the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact”. For me, Mombassa’s art represents an Australian search for that reality, not an attempt to undermine it.
Dr Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
This article first appeared online at ‘The Punch’