Home Truths

Cameroonian artist Joel Mpah Dooh was in Johannesburg recently for the opening of his solo exhibition at Henri Vergon’s Afronova Gallery. He spoke with Sean O’Toole

“I don’t believe that I should be compared to black artists but rather all artists,” remarked Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1986. In many respects, the Cameroonian artist Joel Mpah Dooh, whose expressionist assemblage works and jittery drawing style have resulted in comparisons with Basquiat, feels a similar antipathy when he is pigeonholed as a contemporary African artist.

“I don’t know the reason you have contemporary art and then contemporary African art,” he remarked during an interview held at Moyo Restaurant in Newtown. “I used to joke that when I wake up, I go out and create African contemporary art,” Dooh sated. After a pause, he added, “I want to create a relation between me and the viewer. Full stop.”

Born in 1956 and trained at the Municipal Conservatory of Fine Arts in Amiens, France, Dooh lives and works in Douala. Exclusively represented by the Noel Gallery in the US, his work has been widely exhibited internationally. Recent highlights include his participation on the Dakar Biennale, twice, in 1998 and 2006, selection for the Havana Biennale in 2000, also his participation on Lines of Connection (2001), an exhibition curated by Ronel Kellner and Mareme Malong. The group show featured work by Samuel Fosso, Kendell Geers, William Kentridge, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Sam Nhlengethwa.

Although battling with a day-after-the opening hangover, Dooh proved eloquent in narrating his life story. Without the aid of a translator, the French-speaking artist used the opportunity to also rebut a few myths about African art and his place as an “actor” in it.Before you were an artist you were a lawyer. Can you speak about the transition?I originally wanted to be an architect but I wasn’t mathematically inclined. Art seemed like a good idea — I used to draw a lot — but my father said it was impossible. So I went to France and studied law. At university I took extra lessons in art history, in my spare time, really just out of personal interest. After graduating I went back to Cameroon and worked as a law clerk. In 1998 the firm I was with experienced some problems. At the same time I also won an art competition; I was still drawing and painting in my spare time. It gave me another reason to leave law. What was the art market like back then in Douala?I started out exhibiting at the French Cultural Centre and in hotels. Cameroon still doesn’t have a very established market. Who was influencing you at the time, artistically and intellectually?You must remember that when I was starting out it was still the beginning of democracy in our country. [In December 1990, Cameroon reintroduced multi-party politics.] Some names that come to mind include the writer Mongo Beti and Achille Mbembe — I used to listen to his radio broadcasts. It was also the early days of Simon Njami and Revue Noire. When did you first meet Simon Njami?Around 1993, he was in Cameroon for a special issue of Revue Noire. I met him on a workshop with other artists. We are now good friends. [Laughs] We have very deep exchanges. Simon played a very important part in my attitude towards African contemporary art. When I met him I was still searching for my artistic identity. I used to incorporate a lot of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs into my work, things that spoke about my ancestry. When I met Simon, I told him I was a descendent of the Egyptian civilisation and wanted to be a bearer of that tradition. He said I didn’t have to be, that it was innate. He also told me that I was living in the twentieth century. We talked a lot about that, about the reality of my everyday life. It was a revelation. After I had that conversation with Simon I realised I needed to be freer. It was around that time I came across a catalogue with an image of Basquiat’s work. I was impressed by his freedom, his impertinence. You work has in the past been likened to Basquiat’s. Any comment?I think it is a limiting comparison. I really love his expression, his energy. What I want to do is express a similar impertinence. Full stop. That is where the comparison should end. As a person I am boiling inside. The lines of my drawings express my interior feelings; at the same time I think it is important to be polite. You can see this in my work. There is a raw energy, but it is a controlled and focussed energy. It is not just an uncontrolled outpouring. As I said, I like the idea of impertinence.One of the works on your current show is titled The African Art Market. I read it as being somewhat cynical of this designation. Do you hold any particular views here?You have many people talking about contemporary African art. I am not sure I share all their views. Yes, I am African, and yes, I am making contemporary art. It is peculiar to me to see so many people writing and fighting over the concept of contemporary African art. I know I am actor in it, but I seem to be so far from it all. The exhibition Lines of Connection allowed you to meet some of South Africa’s top artists. Were there any personal highlights?William. What a nice man. To me, William Kentridge is completely the mirror of his art. The art and the person are one body. He shows the truth of his environment.I think, as an artist, you must tell the truth of who you are, where you are from, what you want to do.