Mambo: Art Irritates Life – Screens on ABC, Tuesday 8th November at 9.30pm

In the 1980s, clothing brand Mambo grew out of the Sydney punk music scene and became a hit across Australian culture – by taking the piss out of everything ‘strayan’, including themselves.
Featuring iconic artists like Reg Mombassa, Richard Allen and Matthew Martin, and led by brilliant entrepreneur Dare Jennings, Mambo grew out of the surfing world and went on to make millions from the mainstream – charming, confounding and insulting just about everyone along the way.

Narrated by Celia Pacquola, Mambo: Art Irritates Life, shines a spotlight on the iconic Australian clothing brand Mambo and the artists behind the label. Mambo was a collective of comical and contrary graphic artists that specialised in laconic Australian humour. They took the piss out of everything, including themselves, and became the nation’s most popular art movement of the 90’s.

Mambo began in a garage in inner Sydney, and 15 years later grew in prominence to be the obvious choice to represent Australian culture or irreverence at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Featuring interviews with Mambo’s creator Dare Jennings, the artists who brought the brand to life and archival footage, the story of Mambo is about art connecting with people and about how we celebrated a bunch of troublemakers.

As a teenager in the 1970s, farmboy Dare Jennings hitchhiked from the south- western plains of New South Wales to the burgeoning artistic and musical hub of Sydney.

In this environment, Jennings set up his own backyard screenprinting studio for t- shirts and posters, calling it Phantom. It became a record store in 1979, a one-stop shop where bands could print their gig posters and sell their music and then later it became a music recording label, releasing the likes of The Sunnyboys, Hoodoo Gurus and other independent local acts at the centre of a riotous rock scene.

In the early 80’s, it dawned on Jennings that he could combine the irreverent artworks produced in his studio with surfwear, upending the insular surf design industry and capitalising on its far-reaching distribution channels. He released his first run of board shorts under the name Mambo, featuring a design by Richard Allan. The board shorts were a hit in the surf stores of Sydney, and the Mambo brand was born.

Australians loved this cheeky new take on fashion. Over the years, Mambo took off, thriving around the enterprising mind of Jennings and an unruly stable of artists, who jostled to have their designs made into t-shirts. Richard Allan, Reg Mombassa, Robert Moore, Gerry Wedd, Paul McNeil, Bruce Goold and David McKay are some of the artists who created the irreverent, clever, rude and loud designs that distinguished Mambo from the other clothing brands on the market. They revered no one and offended many.

By the late 1990s Mambo t-shirts were as ubiquitous on the backs of Australians as the Hills Hoists in their backyards.

But their biggest challenge was still ahead of them the startle a TV audience of four billion people with their artwork for the Sydney Olympics.

A commission to create the Australian athletes’ uniforms and opening ceremony designs for the 2000 Sydney Olympics cemented Mambo’s place in Australian popular culture. But it also made for a huge challenge – could they still be as naughty? This was the pinnacle of the company’s commercial success, but following the ceremony there was a feeling that the brand had ‘sold out’, ‘jumped the shark’ and become ‘dad-wear’.

Youth culture had moved on from the irreverent designs. Dare Jennings sold the company for over $20 million.

In a far cry from its DIY roots in the rebellious Sydney rock scene, Mambo: Art Irritates Life celebrates the era when artists were troublemakers, and still had their work bought by and housed in the nation’s major art galleries.