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Reg Mombassa’s “Australian Jesus”

June 22, 2010

"Australian Jesus" c.1998

From the mid 1990’s Mambo designer Reg Mombassa shocked, horrified and delighted with his, now, iconic series titled “Australian Jesus.” The overwhelming community reactions to Mombassa’s, arguably, sacrilegious art has given rise to a social, political, theological, and academic debate about Jesus and the constitution of the “sacred” in literature and Art and what these may reveal about Australian culture.

The “Australian Jesus” sculpture and other designs like “Australian Jesus at the football” and “Australian Jesus welcomes the Refugees” were designed for clothing label Mambo. The sculpture (pictured) was displayed in stores, while the other two pieces were t-shirt designs. The were pieces of self-conscious pop culture.

Mombassa, whose artwork featured prominently in the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony, claims that all he knows about the bible he learned from watching the “Jesus” movies. Yet, his “Australian Jesus” in it various guises offers some striking ecclesiastical and social commentary. Mombassa has never been openly reflexive about the underlying spiritual, political and social themes of his work, though I think you will agree that his work speaks for itself.

In Mombassa’s work we see a second sighted superhero with working class tastes and a well developed sense of social justice – who still knows that what Australians really want is the quarter acre block where they can build their house and raise their kids, cold beer, footy and meat pies. In “Australian Jesus” we see a statue (reminiscent of an icon) of a male bearded face labeled “Australian Jesus” and recognisably familiar from framed images of the Sacred Heart seen in so many Australian Catholic homes of the 1970s and 80s. The one thing that is not recognisable from those gilt framed images that populate lounge rooms Australia-over, is the extra eye. He both has a halo above his head and is surrounded by a halo of images (from right to left): a circular saw, a football, a can of beer, a meat pie, a house , a thong (in American parlance this is a flip-flop), a dog, and a FJ Holden Ute (Utility Truck) with a large wooden cross in the back.

I think it is safe to say that each of the images is symbolic. The circular saw represents the Australian value of the do-it-yourself mentality in so far as home improvement and the pioneering attitude. The football is representative of the quasi-idolisation of sport to the level of that ordained by the God-man. It it important to note here that it may be intentional that it is unclear what football code the ball belongs to (it could be rugby union, rugby league, or Australian Rules football) – though it is a catch-cry of Rugby union fans that “Rugby is the game they play in heaven.” The meat pie is an iconic representation of the national food, but also a substitution for the loaves and fish in “Australian Jesus at the Football.” The house arguably represents the “Australian dream” of the quarter acre block and owning your own home. It could also, by virtue of the flame-like thing underneath the house, be showing a house moving up to heaven, so an abode in the skies, but this is speculation. Thongs are the classic Australian footwear and as such speaks to the notion of Aussie identity as it relates to footwear. It can also be seen as a substitution for the sandals Jesus may have worn. The mambo-esque dog is indicative of dog as “man’s best friend” – the loyal, faithful, hard-working companion. Finally, the classic, iconic Australian made FJ Holden (the first vehicle completely designed and manufactured in Australia) is pictured with a cross in the back. The image of Jesus taking the cross with him wherever he goes is one possible reading, another is to say that instead of carrying the cross to Calvary, “Australian Jesus” would just throw it in the back of his ute. There is much more to say about the implications of the imagery of “Australian Jesus” but space does not permit me here.

Suprisingly, Mombassa’s “Australian Jesus” series has not been examined outside Gallery catalogs and graphic design trade periodicals. It is neither taken seriously by art historians nor by those involved in cultural studies even though Mambo and Mombassa’s designs became so ubiquitous within pop culture that he was considered iconic enough to have some of his other characters included in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. New Zealand born Chris O’Doherty (b.1951) grew up in the 1960s Australia. Chris O’Doherty, the landscape artist and rock musician (with Australian bands Mental As Anything and member of Dog Trumpet) is also Reg Mombassa, the pop culture atelier who designs for the clothing label Mambo and produces iconic imagery to adorn retail stories and for press materials.

Jesus is a mate, benevolent but not patriarchal, sacrificing but not celebritised, honored and worshiped in the same manner as Australian sportstars, for his skills and abilities, rather than his intellect or message; a super-hero that is seemingly ordinary and importantly so – with the accoutrements, yet with an extra eye – both one-eyed in the sense of being devoted to one’s own point of view (a one-eyed sports supporter is a supporter to the point of obvious irrationality) while also symbolizing extra sight and knowledge over and above us mortals. The sporting symbolism is not as obvious in Australian Jesus, but more so in terms of “Australian Jesus at the Football” and has specific cultural reference to the fans of various clubs in each of the Australian football codes selling “one-eyed supporter” merchandise items in the 1980s and 1990s . It may be helpful to note that the notion of one-eyed support is support for a sporting team regardless of any evidence to the contrary of your team being the best.

The “Jesus” that is most obviously seen in Mombassa’s work is the saviour, the mate, cogniscant of the third eye (or higher knowledge) and yet one-eyed (in the sense of a sporting fanatic). This is the same kind of hero as the mythic Australian tales of Gallipoli, the Eureka Stockade, and Ned Kelly. It must be said that neither the historical Jesus nor the biblical Jesus is the “mate” most white middle class Australians look for, or in Mombassa’s case, the Jesus most Australian’s create.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2010 2:04 pm

    I was not aware of the Australian Jesus, and certainly could not have discerned all the symbolism in this work by myself, so thanks for bringing this to our attention! As far as you know, are there other Christians who have interacted with the social and religious significance of this work? What sort of responses to this work has there been in Australian churches?

    • Anna permalink
      June 22, 2010 2:18 pm

      Wes, as far as I know I haven’t read anyone else who’s looked at this series in this way – suprising huh! I’ve written a little on Mombassa and I’d like to explore him more. Actually, I think I’d like to look at the rest of this series in a similar way.

      Actually there is a stained glass window designed by Mombassa in the Wayside Chapel in Sydney. It’s the only piece of artwork in that church. Actually it is interesting and could be a post in itself.

      In terms of general response – when the series was first aired and displayed in Mambo stores there was backlash within the church community, but no-one looked beyond the initial shock considering the series sacrilegious to think about what Mombassa might be saying about the way Australians construct Jesus and how his work might also be a critique on the Australian church. Mambo has a reputation for being shocking and for twisting pop culture icons to present something new.

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