Writing Art History Since 2002

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Joël Mpah Dooh’s Let’s Take a Walk is characterised by an “ordinariness” – or inflections of “ordinariness” – that makes for enticing viewing.

The writer and thinker, and Dooh’s fellow Cameroonian, Achille Mbembe, used this word in a recent public presentation in which he questioned whether South African artists had engaged this quality of “ordinariness” in their work in the post-1994 period. I am unable completely to explicate Mbembe’s line of thinking in the space of this review, but what can be said is that Dooh’s Let’s Take a Walk is immersed, in my view, in this “ordinary” as a matter of course and, in this immersion, often achieves the extraordinary in the recording of the minute-by-minute minutiae of exchanges in the city.

Comprising a series of gritty, beautiful mixed-media on aluminium works, two Perspex “shadow” engravings and a wire “shadow” installation, the exhibition traverses a gathering of lived moments that individually and collectively provide an account of the complexities and vagaries of existence in the African city, in this instance – very often it seems – Johannesburg. How is this quality encountered? How is this “ordinariness” manifested? Firstly, through the physical quality of the materials used. Secondly, through the imaging of language, whether a single word, numbers, a fragment of a sentence or a snatching of intimate and unruly conversation. And thirdly, through the construction of spaces that are seemingly immediately recognisable and yet also beyond my grasp, within which a multitude of characters perform their lives. Much of this mixture of surety and elusiveness is present in the imaged conversations too, and here the ordinariness coalesces as a series of histories, of moments. Lifestyle in Town (2012) and Creating New Heroes (2012), both emerging from a process of painting, burnishing and a grinding/polishing out of the aluminium and paint, epitomise these small (and larger) histories. Speech bubbles and rectangular scene frames provide a readily accessible series of visual cues with the calligraphic sprawling of French, Englishes and perhaps yet to be named emerging languages scrawled across these and other works.

Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa magazine (10.4), in stores now.

David Andrew

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