True to its title – ‘Stories to Tell’ – Joël Mpah Dooh‘s solo exhibition at Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg is a concoction of multiple narratives weaved together in visual form. Produced by an artist positioning himself as a flâneur, this multifaceted body of work is a portrayal of the human condition in the pandemic time warp. The work, generated from the artist’s own observations and virtual interactions in moments of solitary confinement because of lockdown, collectively speaks of the new realities of the relationships we had before, and are longing for, as a wave of nostalgia is coursing across the world.
With colourful figures either grounded or suspended on monochromatic backdrops, Mpah Dooh’s works – which bridge between drawing and painting – cover the mundane crucial and less important stories in no hierarchical order as such. The paintings on paper are vibrant, rudimentary, and almost child-like, with dosages of humour in the forms and stances adopted by his characters, some of which have stretched-out necks, deep lips, and large noses. In a past interview the artist stressed that he likes ‘to observe how people react to the evolution of society’,1Oliver Enwonwu in conversation with Joel Mpah Dooh. Available here. which is the foundation for this body of work.
What we need to cope through this phase of hardship and difficulty is hope or encouragement, coupled with a sense of humour. Some of the works in this exhibition reflect on the status quo, albeit in a serious and sometimes satirical manner. As state-imposed lockdowns stretched for months in most parts of the world, people got so tired of political leaders’ predictable airy speeches that they could hardly follow them. The comical figures in The President Speaks look too disoriented to pay attention to the speaker. People lost faith in governments. In Stay Where You Are the artist portrays social or physical distancing, something the world embraced to try to minimise the spread of the pandemic. We keep a distance from fellow humans as though they are radioactive. Market During Lockdown depicts a scene with sellers so starved of patrons that they seem to approach and beg them to purchase their wares as potentially lucrative deals and opportunities slip away.
In times of uncertainty like the current one, people resort to faith or the spiritual domain to help them navigate through troubled epochs. In Aleluja the artist depicts a worshipping scene in which the figures in the work look up to the giant black figure in the centre. The two weary-looking figures sitting in the foreground could be tired of the ritual. This happens when prayers fail to get responses. The figure standing between them seems like an observer looking at the scene. Perhaps that is the artist inserting himself in the frame. In Ancestral Guidance, the figures on the march tread on the ground where their ancestors are buried, carrying luggage of varying sizes, some of which is too heavy to bend their backs. This could be a metaphor for the spiritual burdens carried by individuals, for they vary in sizes too. They seem to be marching in the dark, which gives a sense of going nowhere, like the uncertainty of this moment.
Our Last Garden Party and The Last Picnic are odes to what we really miss. Through them the artist invokes our sense of restorative nostalgia by revisiting the pleasures of the pre-quarantine phase that we can only long to get back to. It is the times we would gather outdoors, kiss and hug, and share a drink over loud music. It is that interconnectedness in the physical which we always took for granted that is no longer there, at least for the meantime. But are these experiences really in the past? Are they long gone? The truth is we shall have them back. What bothers us the most and forces our minds to retreat to these familiar situations is the uncertainty of when exactly.
This too shall come to pass. We are so resilient that even the toughest of times do not dampen our spirits. We see and think of possibilities against the odds. Someday After Lockdown invokes that spirit of optimism. We shall regain our freedom and we will socialise in the physical again. Our whimsical visions of what used to be are not just daydreams. Our optimism emanates from the fact that we know that generations that came before us were able to overcome pandemics, some of which were more lethal than the current one.
‘Stories to Tell’ is an exhibition with as many themes as the multiple possibilities we have of what the future will be like. It reflects what would have been, provides a testimony of what is, as well as a contemplation of what we anticipate. Our wistful affection for the past provides the psychological comfort necessary for adaptation. We will be back to the ‘normal’ as we know it, and we trust we will be able to tell these stories. Future generations of art historians will turn to the past for an account of what transpired during the period of the pandemic. They will count on Mpah Dooh’s work, among those who visually mapped the moment.