​Joël Mpah Dooh’s latest work explores the idea of collective fragility

Cameroonian artist Joël Mpah Dooh’s new workSince We Last Met, is a “polite” way of introducing some of the trauma he has been processing since his last South African show, Let’s Take a Walk.

The ideas of being held captive by time and the politicised nature of daily routines feature strongly in his first solo exhibition at Gallery Momo since being trapped at OR Tambo airport for four days in 2013.

Dooh, a multidisciplinary artist whose approach is derived as much from experiments into the unknown as from techniques honed over the course of his 30-year career, says “polite” when he should say “humorous”.

For Dooh, humour is a useful and disarming element but it is rarely an end unto itself. His distinct, long-necked figures, often with exaggerated features, sometimes lie in supplication or contorted in anguish. Others peer at each other in trepidation from across the horizon of “breaking” eggs, as if anticipating invading masses.

In this work, Dooh rarely invokes lone figures. His preoccupation is our relation to one another.

For Dooh, aluminium is a particularly emotive “canvas”, evoking dreamscapes as lucid as the fragile nature of our mortality. Much of the work in Since We Last Met explores the nature of our interconnectedness as global citizens, taking in Dooh’s misgivings about the sincerity of these connections.

A particularly effective piece in this pursuit is Watching a Breaking Egg, in which figures stand on one side of a cracking sphere. In this large work, measuring 1.25m by 2.25m, one group is armed with video cameras and anxiously looking at the oncoming human traffic. On the other side, dismembered figures peer in, as if viewing a mythical land of plenty. One of them gets his fix of the goings-on from the Tribune magazine.

Dooh’s toying with the representation of race suggests that we all have to reckon with our positionality in the unfolding human tragedy of forced migration.

“I am not talking so much about immigration, but on this very idea of being connected,” says Dooh after his October 13 opening. “We are too connected, actually. I met some artist here yesterday and we were in Dakar sitting together a few months ago. I met Andrew Shabangu here. He was in Douala [in Cameroon] a few months ago.

“We are too connected, but at the same time you have this idea by politicians of creating borders and special spaces for people. My feeling is that this is the end of something.”

Dooh speaks in a self-contained language, punctuated by passport stamps and centrally positioned spheres, that alludes to this sense of foreboding. In a work titled In Him We Trust, a figure urinates down a funnel from his raised spherical bubble to a contorted mass below.

In Conclave, an exclusive group huddles above the stamped heads of the plebeians below. The conclave is surrounded, perhaps shielded, by books, newspapers and other symbols of knowledge and information.

Dooh strives for a measured stridency but he doesn’t skimp on emotion. The wire mesh sculpture of a figure trapped in the bureaucracy of air travel (which forms part of the ensemble piece A Matter of Time) succinctly communicates the state Dooh refers to throughout the interview: fragility.

For the artist, fragility is the perfect summation for our interdependent state as human beings. But it is also a linguistic tool, to evoke without browbeating. Tribute to Mongo Beti, a piece about the late Cameroonian writer, embodies this methodology.

Fragmented spectacles and an ocean of red rising high against Dooh’s smudged aluminium sheet dominate the picture. A table with books, a coin-like inscription in the corner of the painting and an abandoned, toppled bottle harkens Beti’s distressed latter years.

“The way he wrote about the fight against colonialism was both serious and funny,” says Dooh, suggesting an admiration for and a co-option of Beti’s sensibility. Beti’s return to Cameroon from France, says Dooh, was tragic, trapping the writer in a second, internal exile.

The surrealist bent of this and other paintings suggests that Dooh is moved by Beti’s passion for dreaming of a new Cameroon. “Dreaming, like expectation, is a necessity,” says Dooh. “Because when you dream, it means that you are alive. When you dream you can expect.

“For an artist, dreaming is the possibility that opens you to something that could be really far to the reality of the now.”

Dooh agrees with the notion of the artist occupying, in a sense, a space of liminality. His new project space in Douala is called Wemah, an acronym for We Make Art at Home. It also means to wake up. It is Dooh acknowledging the status quo while finding a way of subverting it with a space that will offer residencies for artists around the world.

“The freedom of creating your own space of surviving, that to me is really interesting. The state is in a kind of chaos but then you have smart people who are creating what I’d call, personally, the island of thinking, the island of resistance.

“What is interesting is to wake up in the morning and go to your island of resistance. You can experience truth and the beauty of life because you are in your own island of resistance.

“This is the reason why I try to create in my exile, the space of exchanging with friends with whom we share the practice of art and the love of jazz music.”

Since We Last Met runs at Gallery Momo until November 28.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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