Portrait

His pictures are colourful. His songs are bright. But in person, or on stage, Reg Mombassa is strikingly monochrome. By Lucy Lehmann.

Reg Mombassa’s unassuming world

His pictures are colourful. The next-door neighbours have one of a kangaroo playing football in a red-glitter beanie and gold-glitter sandals. His songs are bright, like nursery rhymes, standing out in this era of dark music. But in person, on stage, or at the local shops, he is strikingly monochrome: his hair grey and shoulder-length, somewhere between lank and silky; stubble grey on hollow cheeks; his skin pale and bloodless where taut along the crooked ridge of his nose, around his lips, across his brow bone. 

In a photograph, he can look austere. But over a cup of tea in my kitchen, his face is always moving, the deep lines around his mouth accounted for by the brisk and lively expressions that come and go with talking. His forehead, though, is unlined and quiet.

The monochrome of his face is extended to his clothes: black jeans, black suit jacket, white shirt. The clothes are plain, utilitarian items; the shirt might even be a drip-dry schoolboy shirt. His figure is slight – in his self-portrait song, “Antisocial Tendencies”, he describes himself as “small and thin”, rhyming with “I’m lazy and I’m dirty, I like sleeping in” – and this, combined with his brisk movements, makes him seem almost weightless, as though a gust of wind could pick him up and send him a few yards. His hat is the only showy part of his outfit: a big cowboy hat, black as night, very beautiful, with a band of silver medallions. The contrast of the hat almost makes me smile, but it suits him.

He seems completely free from vanity. He speaks of playing in a rock band in the ’70s with a “flash” lead guitarist who “knew all the licks”. I say something about competitive young men, and he replies, “I wasn’t competitive because I was no good.” 

The hat was bought on a recent trip to Texas, where he and his brother played at the music event SXSW. He likes the enthusiasm Americans have for success, including other people’s, in contrast to the uneasiness it provokes in Australians “and New Zealanders”. He is successful in music and art, two fields strewn with failed careers – he might not have the flashest licks, but he has ideas. Looking at his pictures, or listening to his songs, you are always rewarded with an idea, a grain of gold – something he found interesting and worth passing on.

A more unassuming, sincerely modest success could hardly be found in Australia “or New Zealand”. Although I’m supposed to be interviewing him, he talks about other people, or places, or things – not himself. He has a song with the refrain, “I’m so handsome”, which elicits smiles and a guffaw or two from the audience – we assume he is being ironic, self-deprecating. But these two qualities require a person to have a kind of mirror, a preoccupation with looking at themselves and wondering how others see them. There’s no self-deprecation in his conversation, and if there’s irony, it’s subtle and obscure – for his own private amusement.

So I’m left thinking about his monochrome appearance. Some thought must go into that, some effort taken to eschew colour. In the cowboy hat shop in Texas, weren’t there tempting hatbands of Mexican patterns, or even just a bright feather? I know his intention isn’t to impress or attract; the last thing he’s trying to do is look cool. And I don’t think he wears black and white for relief from the richness of his imagination. 

I recall a piece of advice given by Robert Brain, anthropologist and needleworker: “Make your life an artwork.” Take the raw material and work it into something interesting. Perhaps this is the key: he, the artist, took a look at his own face and physique, and made it into this impoverished clergyman, this Day of the Dead effigy. I told my brother I was doing a portrait of Reg Mombassa, and he said, “Oh! Now he is worth looking at!”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "True colours". Subscribe here.

Lucy Lehmann
is a novelist and songwriter living in Sydney.