Are we Nigerians up to seeing our intimate moments displayed in art? If we condone the indecent display of penises in public places, what then is wrong with with having intimate moments displayed in art?
From the group exhibition Strip to Tamba, a series by Nigerian printmaker Tayo Quaye, Rele Gallery continues to bring forward the less discussed subject of intimacy and the female body. Apparently, the image of a male being and sometimes female or children peeing by the road side no longer jolts the mind rudely except when presented in the white space of a beautiful gallery. The Nigerian audience is simply not used to such outright reality displayed in this terrain. We like our art to be comfortable, pictures suitable and appropriate for our walls. Something less shocking.
Tamba, and other works similar to it are topics we shy away from discussing. In Nigeria, we have sex but we do not discuss sex. For a moment, let us step away from this awkwardness (or perhaps hypocrisy?). Professor Jacob Jari in A Rarity In The Study of The Nude explains Tamba as “a word which origin is uncertain but which refers to the cleansing of a woman’s groin especially after sex”. This is one out of a few contexts. In general usage, the phrase, lo tamba is used to instruct a child to go and wash up after excreting, peeing, or for emphasis after bath to be sure you cleaned up properly – so tamba. For adults past the age of innocence and such parental instruction, tamba becomes much more than an hygienic exercise but a private and intimate act done sometimes specially before sex but definitely after. Which explains why Quaye created works illustrating a woman’s mood before the act and after.
To the younger generation of Yoruba speakers, tamba is a strange word and gross at the same time. It is considered local and they believe it is only used by uneducated people on the street. Some of us even forget it is the same act we all do when we wash up. Gross right! The gallery should be applauded for connecting its young audience with a word that is going into extinction because of what Yorubas call aye olaju – (modernisation).
Beyond the subjects of intimacy and hygiene, the oldest works presented at the exhibition in a separate room connect bathing with spirituality. On opposite walls are two small images in deep etching accompanied by a text which says “The Story Began With The Spiritual Bath” on the middle wall. Both works Isegun and Bather created in 1981, present bathing as spiritual to a miracle seeker. A traditionalist or spiritualist would recommend this special cleansing for people seeking deliverance or a gift from a supreme being. As seen in both images, the bather either goes into a flowing stream or uses water mixed with concoction in a private place.
The Tamba series is largely a collection of rarely seen oil and acrylic paintings by the artist. Quaye is known for printmaking and his works are in the collection of patrons in Nigeria and private collections in Europe and the United States. Sponsored by the French wine brand Fat Bastard, it is the last exhibition for Rele Gallery in its first year of business in Nigeria. At the opening of the gallery in February, the director Adenrele Sonariwo had promised an exhibition each month of the year. This would have made a total of eleven exhibitions, but instead, the gallery had a total of eight exhibitions. Quoting Ayodeji Rotinwa, communications director at Rele, “we planned to have eleven exhibitions, with a set list of artists but this changed, first, because more urgent social themes and conversations came up that we could not have predicted in February when we opened, for instance our exhibition on nudity, Lagos, and Crossing Lines. Secondly, because of art market trends. This being our first year in business, we decided that some exhibitions may perform better and would have more impact as our profile increases. So we moved them to next year.”