By Tajudeen Sowole
When female hygiene, as a subject, attracts the palette of an artist, the issue of crossing the line of 'decent' expression and presentation in creative context becomes relative as printmaker Tayo Quaye's adventure into painting suggests. Quaye, b. 1954 is a printmaker of over 40 years, widely traveled and currently showing his paintings for the first time in Nigeria.
Displayed under the title of The Tamba Series at Rele Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, the female figures are, arguably, the most graphic depiction of personal hygiene in art space of Lagos in recent times. Quaye’s last solo, an exhibition of prints was in 2000 at Nimbus Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos.
The current exhibition, so it appears, further stresses Rele Gallery's attitude towards creating “new ideas” to generate fresh art followers and collectors. Given the thickening texture of contemporaneity, the Tamba theme would be a delight for extremism performance artists such as Marina Abramvoic and Tracey Emin, though the cultural or spiritual origin of the theme remains a debate, which Quaye attempts to raise. But as a creative expression of an artist who is known for prints, Quaye's skill in painting derives so much strength from drawing, a crucial factor in lino and etching family of the print medium.
Segmented into series such as After Bath, Before and Tamba, the blue tone of nearly all the paintings suggest secretive or sacred perspective to the theme. From modern to the contemporary era, cultural or religious values always view personal hygiene, particularly of genital part of the body differently. In southwest of Nigeria, for example, using water for cleansing after discharging feces is a common cultural behaviour among Yoruba. Perhaps, from such hygiene process comes 'tamba', which has been the behavior of the people across generations. However, Quaye's focus on ‘tamba’ as a female issue is well understood given the sensitivity of hygiene in women’s privacy.
"Tamba is part of my childhood memory," says Quaye during a chat inside Rele Gallery few days after the opening. "Growing up, my mother - who is still alive - never told me to go and tamba." He insists that it has been a cultural behaviour among Yoruba that when a lady is old enough to start taking bath, the mother tells her to always ‘tamba.’ "It is different from cleaning after discharging feces." The emphasis, as he understands 'tamba' is on lady's cleanliness of genital part of the body, using water.
The artist notes the disappearing culture of tamba among ladies during a period of 20 years while compiling the works. In fact, he argues that "ladies of today do not know what tamba means." Quaye finds "as disgusting," for example, "ladies using tissue paper or ‘toilet rolls’ instead of water after visiting the toilet." Indeed, the artist echoes thinking of most Yoruba men who derogatorily refer to such ladies as 'awon omo ti o ki n' tamba.' (Ladies who don't wash their genitals properly).
From a spiritual perspective of the theme, it appears that tamba has never declined among adherents of the Islamic faiths. Across gender, Muslims hold on to the hygiene of using water at every point of visiting the toilet for minor or major discharge of wastes. And for the fact that families in southwest of Nigeria interact across faiths, it is also common to note that some non-Muslim Yoruba ladies have imbibed the culture of tamba as part of private hygiene.
Given the cultural and faith background, what exactly is the origin of tamba? Quaye says his research has not exactly been definite as the origin of the word. But the spiritual and faith origin, he agrees, has been confirmed. "I spoke to one Imam who told me that the Quran places so much emphasis on tamba. So, it's a spiritual cleanliness for Muslims across gender," Quaye stresses.
And with Mallam (oil and charcoal on paper 1986), depicting back view of a male figure urinating in a crouch position, the cross-gender spiritual cleanliness of tamba in is confirmed. Beside the male figure, as captured on Quaye’s canvas, is a small water container, waiting to be used as part of the spiritual bathe of the man. The crouch position of the figure as captured in Quaye's work, interestingly, is a subject of debate among scholars of Islamic spiritual bath: opinions are divided on the implications of standing or crouching.
Based in northern Nigeria, the artist’s body of work, he discloses, took him so long to compile, "because it's difficult to get someone to pose for you in this part of the country."
Few prints such as After Bath 2 and 1, Isegun and Bather, included in the exhibition and catalogue remind followers the artist about his print background. Quaye was one of the students of master printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya. Forty years after, the traces of Onobrakpeya's print technique still hovers over his art. Since his professional career, post-school, he has consistently been glued to the style and technique of prints, which is full of lines. It goes beyond been attracted to the technique, he says. "Printmaking is so vast that it is a course on its own in universities abroad." He recalls how, for example, he wanted to gain admission to study art at a U.S university, and the school "asked me to get a portfolio."
Onobrakpeya, he explains, "was the only option that offered me apprenticeship." Though he ended up at Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH) Lagos, "the experience with Onobrakpeya prepared me well enough." For over 40 years of his career, despite majoring in painting at YABATECH, printmaking refused to create space for the former. "Printmaking is a very jealous medium; so, painting couldn't have crept in."
Quaye's Tamba opened few weeks ahead of the third convention of Guild of Professional Artists of Nigeria (GFA). Being a foundation member of GFA, is Quaye honestly, satisfied that the essence of founding the group has been achieved? "To the best of my knowledge, GFA is still on track," Quaye, one of the few members who practise outside the Lagos base of the group argues.
Like most members, he insists that GFA has restored professionalism to the fold of Nigerian visual arts circle. He agrees that indeed, art is very vulnerable to flooding of people who are not professional artists, but "it's important to draw the line." He recalls how the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA)-organised art exhibitions in the past "used to promote professional artists."
The coming of GFA, he boasts, has brought back professionalism into Nigerian art scene. "For GFA, the regular art exhibitions and auctions that feature works of members "show that the guild is on course."
In the first four years of GFA after its official launching in 2008, membership of the group was strictly by invitation. Currently, the seeming liberalism, which opened up membership to applications is still not all encompassing enough, so a section of critics insist. Quaye, in defense of the guild notes that every association has a certain level of exclusiveness. "Professional bodies like the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the medical doctorsN among others are not for everybody. So, the GFA cannot be an exception."
For Rele, Tamba, which is running into the gallery's one- year anniversary brings the artist's skills to fore. "Best known for his accomplished prints, lino engravings and etchings, the artist with this exhibition will no doubt cement his legacy of artistic dexterity," says Rele in a gallery statement. "The series climaxes with the ‘Tamba Series’ the works from which the entire series derives its name. The pieces are a visual feast – depending on who’s looking- and it focuses (again) on woman and her anatomical complexities. Here, the artist insists on leaving it open to individual interpretation."
Quaye has exhibited in both solo and group exhibitions in U.S, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.K as his work is represented in several institutions and private collections across the world. His works, says Rele “can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. “