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In Conversation with Joel Mpah Dooh

Could you share your background including family, childhood and education?

I was born in Douala in October 24th 1956. I’m the elder brother of 7 children 5 brothers and 2 sisters. I am married to Angele and we have one son, William. He is now 25 years old finishing is master degree in Biochemical University of Douala. My father who past away (and my mother too) was a civil servant. he end is carrier by becoming a member of parliament. I am the only artist in my family. When I was young, during the Christmas day I use to set up for my brothers and sisters a crib.The sculptures with clay was made by me. After my law degree in University Paris 1 France, I went to art school in Amiens to complete my education. Back to Cameroon, I started working in an insurance company and 5 years later I took the risk to start an artistic carrier.

Do you recall your first drawing as a child? What was it about, and what inspired it?

During the Christmas I use to make at home the sculptures inspired by the characters of the bible. With my new books any new school year, I use to display them in my room and lighting them with a torch light. When I entered in high school, I started attending art activities. My first painting was inspired by the story of devil(djiire in foolfoolde language).

Tell us about your early influences? Were you influenced by anybody or family member who is an artist?

I can’t say that somebody influenced me in my family. I started hearing jazz when was young (17) like the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr or trumpeters Miles Davis. My uncle was a Jazz lover. I was fascinated by the energy, dexterity and freedom of these musicians. I imagine painting when I am listening music. During my life as a student in Paris, I started my art training by visiting the exhibitions in Centre Georges Pompidou.

Where have you lived and how long have you practiced your art?

After my study in France, I went back to Douala My home and my studio are situated in BONENDALE around 22 km from the centre of the city near the Wouri river .I’m living there with my family since 1995.

Have you worked anywhere else or done something else for a living besides art?

I worked for 5 years in an insurance company and now established as fulltime visual artist, sharing my life between creating and exhibiting.

Where is your studio presently?

My studio is presently in Douala Bonendale village, Cameroon.

What philosophy underlies your work and how would you describe your art?

I’m trying to describe the fragility of human being in the vast space of human existence. I like talking about the fragility of our identity. I try to observe how people react to the evolution of the society. I am fascinated by the idea of sharing the space or abusing the power give by the people. My work is humoristic. I use funny characters to describe the hardness of my environment and how people try to resist. My work is figurative and full of allusion. I am a mixed media artist.

Can you let us in on your working methods and techniques?

My work is very diversify .I like working on different medium, like painting on canvas or on aluminium, drawing on paper, making sculpture with wire or clay, performing or making installation by creating the shadows in the space with light on Perspex, engraving on Perspex or on aluminium etc. I like drawing, In my studio, I lay down
on the floor several artworks and I work on it at the same time. I work fast but I come back on the same work several time and many days after before signing. I like being surrounded by images and walking around from one to an other to add or remove some thing.

You appear most comfortable working on aluminium surfaces besides the more conventional canvas and wood panels. Is there any special reason for this?

After engraving on small size of sheet of aluminium fixed on canvas, I decide to engrave on the entire surface of old sheet of aluminium. Then I took the large new sheet of aluminium. I polish it with the sand paper before putting ink, acrylic or oil painting on top of the surface, then I engrave with a dentist tool (Dremel) or grander. I can use oil pastel then fixing it with a fixative. I am using pre print sheet of aluminium at the moment.

How long does it take you to finish a work, for instance, a sizeable painting?

It takes a short time polishing and putting colours, then several days to draw, to engrave, to polish and to paint again before fixing. It is difficult to say how long it takes to finish one artwork but generally for medium work, it takes between two or three full days.

Have you been influenced by any artist?

Cy Twombly, Picasso, Basquiat.

Which African artist do you admire most?

Traditional African sculptors, William Kentridge

How do you react to the comparison of your style to Basquiat’s?

People who have a short idea of my entire work make this comparison and need to see more than what they know. My work is very diversify of course inspired by the freedom and energy of this big artist. That’s it When I met Basquiat’s work many years ago I was impress by his freedom and insolence and wanted people to feel it in my work too. Now what I want is to show energy and simplicity of telling things.

Your palette is characteristically set in subdued dry tones, which conjures a sombre atmosphere matching the seriousness of thoughtsath them. Do you set out to comment on the society through your work? Could you discuss the socio-economic and cultural influences in your work?

I like joking about how people live in the brutality of our environment. They can’t feed themselves every day, but they are well dressed and laughing There is a strength, energy and aesthetic in this attitude. Most of the time, my human subjects are African with deep lips, large nose. I like joking on the idea of authenticity. They can be drawn with a long nose to show the mixed of race. Because of the socio economic crises, people are trying to find solutions to survive they try to show the good side of themselves when at the same time advertising across the city incite
them to consume.

Your human subjects are often delivered with such naïve simplicity that renders them comical, if not entirely satirical. Do you hold this deliberate twist as the hallmark of your style?

I try to create human subjects by emphasizing they face’s lines (the nose, the neck, the lips, the eyes…) to be recognised every where. They look African, European or some time Androgynous. They are comics, naïve, always in strange and humoristic but serious situation .Yes, It is the hallmark of my style.

How has your style evolved over time?

Few years ago, I wanted in the same surface to put every thing I had in my mind. Now my subjects are express with big simplicity. I like living empty spaces, to catch the right idea and to give the essential.

What theme are you exploring in your forthcoming exhibition at the Omenka Gallery in Nigeria?

This exhibition is an opportunity to show many aspect of my work, artistically and technically I am like a story taller and I would like to share this passion with the public.

Have you exhibited in Nigeria in the past?

Yes I was invited in Abudja in a group show ARESUVA.

Could you discuss some of the works which will feature in the show namely: Signs of Life Series 2; Signs of Life Series 4; Motorcycle Symphony; Untitled (Soft Drink); Strange Bird; The Long Journey 2; You Know What; Bonendale Kids Series II; The Other Side of the River; My Last Dream;
Living to Breath; Welcome to the City of Joy; and Dreaming the Best Future?

Motorcycle symphony living in a noisy city and using motorcycle are going upside down, Untitled (soft drink) a drinking place with young boys and girls, Strange bird the man who wanted to dominate the word took a strange position, the long journey the sky is grey .We have to leave but can we carry all the goods, You know what the
gossip, Bonendale kids series 2 the life of the kids in bonendale village, The other side of the river, the life of the fisherman. me has an observer, I’m staying on this side watching them, My last dream, news living between the dream and the reality Living to breath, Rich people are living like being in a bubble Welcome to the city of
joy, the adverting every where showing to people what is the best choice to enjoy without money, Dreaming the best future exodus but carefully Signs of life series 4 a photo of the city in the city.

You have exhibited extensively across Africa, Europe and America. Have you received any award for your work?

McCOLL CENTER FOR VISUAL USA VISA POUR LA CREATION Culture France to GRETMORE STUDIO CAPETOWN Among others.

Works by African artists in recent times have commanded attention at international auctions with soaring prices for established, as well as emergent artists. Does this constitute a reliable parameter for valuing African art?

Yes of course. I think that any occasion to talk about African art is good. There are important spaces of the creation of the value like the International auctions and the International Art fairs. The African art need to be introduced in those spaces of validation where collectors and other art lovers can meet and buy.

In the past decade, Nigeria has evolved a secondary market bolstered by emergent reputable auction houses. What prospects does this trend portend for modern and contemporary African artists?

It is a good reference point for the collectors and the professional. It is important for the credibility, it’s a space of validation, the space of pushing African artists in international art scene. It is a space of speculation, It avoids the fluctuation of prices, It gives the reality of the market. It is important for the market to be
organised.

Where do you place African contemporary art with regards to embracing new media including installations and video art?


We need to open ourselves to different art practice. The world is open and we need to be connected. Some of African artists like Yinka Shonibare or Jane Alexander are
using this medium.

What is your perception of the Cameroonian artists in terms of professional practice and the public expectations?

Individually we have some very good Cameroonian artists. They well known in the continent and overseas like PM Tayou, Barthelemy Toguo or Billy Bidjoka among others but they are living and practicing their art in Europe. Locally you have the good and the bad work. There is no local support. Recently we got Art Institute the National Museum and the national gallery are opened, things are starting but it is too slow.

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