Khadija Saye (1992 -2017)
Known as Ya-Haddy Sisi Saye, Khadija was a Gambian-British photographer, celebrated for her extraordinary photographs during her short life, which ended, at the age of 24, in the Grenfell fire of 2017. She attended the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham and was mentored by the British portrait artist Nicola Green.
A collection of her work was exhibited in the Diaspora Pavilion, at the 57th Venice Biennale, curated by David A Bailey to showcase young, racially and culturally diverse emerging artists. Concerning the theme of migration and displacement, Dwellings: in this Space we Breathe explores the ‘migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices’. Through the work, Khadija questions her mixed-faith heritage, Christian and Muslim, exploring – in her words – ‘the deep-rooted urge to find solace in a higher power’. She was about to appear on a BBC documentary TV programme, Venice Biennale: Sink or Swim, but this was postponed following her death, rescheduled to show later in 2017.
Her chosen medium for this collection was the Victorian tintype, in black-and-white, using a wet metal plate and collodion solution. Khadija combined this method with inspiration taken from fifteenth century portraiture, investigating how the sitter’s ‘piety, virtue, soul, and prosperity’ could be evidenced. As very few Black women appear in 19th-century portraiture, the incongruity between medium and subject is unsettling, sparking thoughts of historic racial inequality. In addition, tintypes are at the mercy of outside elements, particularly the quality and constancy of light. Khadija has said that, ‘whilst exploring the notions of spirituality and rituals, the process of image-making became a ritual in itself.’
A portfolio set of nine silkscreen prints were made of some of the exhibited works; these were signed, dated and numbered. In 2018, one image – an original tintype titled ’Nak Beijen’ – was sold at Christie’s, London, in 2018 as part of the Post-War and Contemporary Day Auction for £43,750. The proceeds went to the Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, launched in 2020 by IntoUniversity and Nicola Green. This initiative focusses on young BAME inclusivity, particularly those from disadvantaged communities and the barriers they face in entering the creative industries.
Khadija had struggled, working as a care worker while studying. Andrew Nairne, director of Kettle’s Yard Gallery, showed huge interest in her work and contacted her the day before she died to discuss exhibiting her photographs. He wanted to meet her in her studio, not realising she worked in a 20th floor Grenfell Tower flat. Afterwards he said, “That she had created such a remarkable, powerful, original series of works was quite extraordinary, it’s an absolute tragedy, this was such a confident first body of work, but there was so much more to come. She had a remarkable future ahead of her.”
For her graduation project in 2013, Khadija created a series called Crowned – eight portraits displaying Black women’s hairstyles such as woven braids, extensions, dreaded, and natural afro, taken in her Grenfell apartment with her mother and friends as sitters. The concept highlights Black hair as a prize, physically and symbolically. Solange Knowles, in 2016, released ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’; eulogising Black hair, the opening verse is: “Don’t touch my crown, They say the vision I’ve found” “They don’t understand, What it means to me”. However, Khadija’s interpretation of ‘Crowned’ wasn’t, “don’t touch my hair” but rather invites the viewers – “Don’t touch but do see’. We are invited to appreciate the intricacies of the varying twists, curls, and over-locking structures of the sitter’s hair. When we are looking at Khadija’s creations in a gallery, we are taken over by their sophistication and beauty; we see Black hairstyles as something of splendour.
Khadija’s other main series were entitled Home Coming, which documented her self-exploration through travel in The Gambia, Madame Jojo’s, and Eid. Throughout all her work with human beings she gained their complete trust; Khadija is at one with the sitters’ environment and therefore we are too. She was a passionate activist and educator, and volunteered at Jawaab to educate and empower young Muslims. Since her death her work has been shown in the following spaces, and the following opportunities have opened for your Black artists:
February, 2018; as part of the reopening show of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.
October to November, 2019; a portfolio of nine silkscreen prints, titled ‘In this space we breathe’, were exhibited at Victoria Miro Gallery, part of Rock My Soul, an exhibition of Black women artists curated by the artist Isaac Julien.
2019; the London Transport Museum launched a photography fellowship program in Khadija’s name.
A paid internship at PEER has been set up in Khadija’s name for young BAME artists.
The launch of the Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme coincided with the unveiling of Breath is Invisible, nine large-scale prints of Khadija’s series In this space we breath which were displayed across the outside façade of 236 Westbourne Grove, West London. It was the first of three exhibitions to run at the space, all of them exploring social inequality and injustice.
Tate Britain is exhibiting a silkscreen of one of the pieces from the Dwellings series, Sothiou (2017), in the memorials section.
By Hannah Ahmed