Khadija Saye was just 24 years old when she died in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the beginning of a highly promising career in photography. Earlier that same year the British artist had exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale, taking part in their first ever Diaspora Pavilion with a series of arresting self-portraits. Now those photographs are being shown in an outdoor exhibition London as part of a new public art project entitled Breath is Invisible.
The photographs shown in Venice were part of a series Saye created called Dwelling: in this space we breathe, in which she presented a sequence of powerful self-portraits made using the intricate 19th-century technique wet plate collodion tintype. The images were created for the art festival’s inaugural Diaspora Pavilion, which was curated by David A Bailey and exhibited work by a group of artists from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, among them Yinka Shonibare and Isaac Julien.
Saye’s striking photographs explored her heritage and identity, as a young woman growing up in London, born to Gambian parents, and she described them as examining “the migration of the traditional Gambian spiritual practices”.
“Taking inspiration from the development of portraiture in the 15th century, I wanted to investigate how a portrait could function as a way of announcing one’s piety, virtue, soul, and prosperity. The series was created from a personal need for spiritual grounding after experiencing trauma – the search for what gives meaning to our lives and what we hold onto in times of despair and life-changing challenges,” Saye said of Dwelling when it was exhibited in Venice.
“We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces in which we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience. Whilst exploring the notions of spirituality and rituals, the process of image-making became a ritual in itself.”
The nine large-scale prints of Saye’s works, which appear on the outside of 236 Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill, mark the first instalment of the three-month Breath is Invisible project, and two more shows will follow later this year from the artists Martyn Ware, Zachary Eastwood-Bloom and Joy Gregory. Founded by Eiesha Bharti Pasricha and curated by Sigrid Kirk, the exhibition itself was launched by the Labour MP for Tottenham and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice David Lammy, a friend of Saye’s, and was “born out of an urgency to address issues of social inequality and injustice”.
All of the participating artists have chosen local causes to support, including Amplify Studios, The Harrow Club and The Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, the latter of which was founded by artist Nicola Green, Lammy’s wife, and IntoUniversity, and aims to address the stark lack of diversity in the UK’s art world by working directly with young BAME individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Green, who was a mentor for Saye, said the programme would be a “fitting way” to honour the “extraordinary” talent of the west Londoner.
Proceeds from the sales of the silkscreen prints of Saye’s photographs will go to raise vital funds for both The Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme and the Estate of Khadija Saye.