Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg
13.10.16 – 28.11.16
In 2012 shortly after the opening of his last show Let’s Take a Walk, Joël Mpah Dooh had a Terminal Man moment when he missed his flight back to his native Cameroon and found himself stuck in limbo for four days at OR Tambo International Airport. Sleeping on chairs and surviving on what food he could find in the airport franchises Dooh described this moment in a recent interview as one which left him in “a space of nowhere, in a space between my country and South Africa.”
This space of nowhere forms a key part of the artist’s examination in his most recent show at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg titled Since We Last Met. The paintings with their abstract groupings of figures painted on aluminium examine the dichotomy between belonging to a group and retaining the loneliness and existential dread that haunts us all. Central to these works is the great leveller of time, that inescapable bell that tolls for all whether they are in a market in Dooh’s hometown of Doula or loiters on the streets of Johannesburg. Clocks pepper the paintings from the load of a rickshaw driver in Being Here Like Flowers to the wall art behind three men in A Matter of Time. These clocks signify not just the four days of Dooh’s liminal airport imprisonment but more broadly an overarching unavoidable shadow in which all of us, free of the labels of race, nationality and class live our lives wherever we may find ourselves.
The figures in Dooh’s paintings are abstracted but also given just enough singular characteristics to indicate their individuality within the groups in which they are situated thus emphasising the artist’s interest in the ways in which even in groups we are all affected by our own personal fragility. The bent over figure bearing a clock in The Victim of Time or the figure with a fish on its head in Street Conversation draw attention to this split between the social and the personal.
It’s a testament to Dooh’s skill and use of medium that walking through the show, in spite of its colour and often crowded canvases the feeling you’re most left with is one of loneliness and alienation. You engage with the work only to be left with a creeping sense of the disengagement that characterises so much of our everyday interaction. This was most directly highlighted in an untitled installation featuring a figure made of mesh wire sitting with a suitcase, a myriad of pieces of string hanging from the walls – physically representing the connections between the figure and the broader world but fixing it in the limbo of eternal waiting for nothing.
The description of the show provided by the gallery made much of Dooh as a flâneur of the globalized continent, strolling through the cosmopolitan cross cultured urban centres of cities and observing people’s everyday interactions and reinterpreting them through his singular lens. If he is a flâneur then based on the work here Dooh is perhaps closest to the Walter Benjamin view of the concept as one which demonstrates the alienation of modern life in the age of capitalism – the luxury of being able to stroll through the city and observe is offset by the feeling of loneliness that permeates his paintings.
Of course though Dooh is an artist with three decades of work behind him who has made his name by virtue of his work’s links not only to universal themes but also to the specifics of the country and continent in which he practices. Works such as Tribute to Mongo Beti, Cameroonian Writer and Using weapons like toys point to African centred themes that don’t necessarily fit within the concerns of the rest of the exhibition but are no less powerful for this focus.
Ultimately Dooh is polite rather than confrontational but that’s perhaps in keeping with the idea of him as a flâneur and the work is often more provocative because of its quiet, thoughtful consideration of profound ideas about the relationships between people in an ever more populated, delineated world. In the end as cheesy as it may seem, it’s perhaps pertinent and yes, a little anachronistic, to remember the words of The Rolling Stones when leaving Dooh’s exhibition:
“Yes, star crossed in pleasure the stream flows on by
Yes, as we’re sated in leisure, we watch it fly
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me.”