Joel Mpah Dooh: A Loving Eye

Joel Mpah Dooh’s show, ‘Stories To Tell’, is a record of lockdown. His residency at Gallery Momo extended, unable to return to Cameroon, Dooh hunkered down and produced ‘stories’ which are psychological. We enter the artist’s mind and heart, observe the world as he sees and experiences it. The observations are tender, in keeping with a temperament which refuses despair. Instead, we become kindred spirits on a human path, because what Dooh reminds us of is the need to remain human when all liberty is stripped away, fraternal and familial comfort denied us, our movements monitored, our sovereignty revoked.

In recent history, nothing compares with the economic and psycho-social paralysis produced by a global lockdown. Freedom of movement, the defining credo of the modern age, was suddenly arrested. However, lockdown revealed a deeper menace – that we were not universal beings, but the products of a parochial and paranoid nationalism. Transnationalism, the bedrock of a liberal ethos, was revealed to be chimerical. It is unsurprising that today, the world over, the values most avidly touted are populism, provincialism, isolationism. Dooh, far from his homeland, was acutely aware of their ominous return, most strikingly so in a mixed media work on cardboard called ‘City Under Control’.

However, Dooh’s deeper insight is not directed towards state control, but towards what connects us, even when isolated from each other. An empath, Dooh strives to connect us, find what binds us. Christian faith is key, as is African ancestral lore which predates it. In his world humans are part of a divine chain of being. Dooh’s works combine the extraordinary and ordinary, wonder and fallibility, care for a greater good and care for the self. It is this merger of great and small which gives his works their restorative power. ‘Doctor Please Nothing Bad’ expresses intimate dread, but sweetly so. ‘Bree Street During Lockdown’, which depicts three figures diverted from their convivial moment by an exterior force, suggests not only the power of misdirection, but the degree to which we are all enthralled, distracted by distraction. ‘Ancestral Guidance’ shows a group of exiles single-mindedly fleeing a nameless threat. They are in a tunnel – a rung in Dante’s hell? – the bones of the dead beneath their feet, a blood red hell above. Still, there is a spirited kinship that joins this phalanx. In ‘Aleluja – God Will Help Us’ the faithful gather about a visionary, while in a less lofty work, ‘3 Gentlemen In Concentration’, we find ourselves privy to a moment of collective musing, each with eyes agog.

Conviviality is the dominant register in Dooh’s works. This sentiment is perfectly expressed in ‘I hope we are going to meet again someday after lockdown’. The wish is not expressed by a sorry lone figure, but through avidly chatting pairs overseen by a beneficent God-like figure. Again, tenderness prevails. Dooh sees the world with a loving eye. Joy, always, lingers longer, overrides despair. ‘Market During Lockdown’ conveys our cranky uncertainties, even now as we finally find ourselves regrouping. ‘Oh Happy Day’, a lyric from a praise song, conveys salvation. Goodness is always possible in Dooh’s world. Barring one work, ‘Joel Eating Fish’, a self-portrait of the artist sunk deep within the world, all Dooh’s works are of human groupings. The collective defines his grasp of the world. ‘Sharing Of The Precious Fruit’ sums up this vision. We cannot survive without mutual care. Nothing can come in the way of ‘the precious fruit’ of life.

Despite global rage, avid posturing and virtue signalling, the maw of identity politics, resurgence of xenophobia and unthinking hatred of others, Dooh gifts us with the sacramental. The naivete of his figures, their rudimentary and gaudy sketchiness, are expressions of states of grace. We desperately require the artist’s ennobled vision, cannot survive this world without the consolation it affords. Given the growing fascination with African artists today, Dooh is well positioned to garner worldwide interest. However, I doubt that it would go to his head. This is because Dooh is as firmly situated in a secular world as he is in the spirit world. He is an artist with an enduring grasp of what matters – trust, truth, belief, hope, love – who carries his faith as effortlessly as he carries his love of the world and the people who occupy it.

*Visit Gallery Momo to see the current solo exhibition by Joel Mpah Dooh titled 'Stories To Tell'. For more information please visit Gallery MOMO - PARAMOUNT-SALT SERIES: ANDREW TSHABANGU