In early 2017, the artist
Khadija Saye completed a series of nine tintype photographs
she called Dwelling: in this space we breathe. Each
work was a self-portrait, in which Saye performed a different,
time-honoured, Gambian spiritual ritual.
‘The series was intensely personal for Khadija,’ says her former mentor, the artist Nicola Green. ‘She drew on subject matter
she cared deeply about… exploring the emotions, feelings
and consequences of her journey and heritage.’
Though she was born and brought up in London, Saye’s parents were from The Gambia — and in Dwelling... she can be seen exploring their Muslim and Christian heritage and holding various objects that are considered sacred in The Gambia, such as a cow horn and incense burner. The artist herself referred to the series as charting ‘the deep-rooted urge to find solace in a higher power.’
Tragically, within a few months of making the series,
Khadija died alongside her mother, Mary, who she shared
a flat with, in the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower
in North Kensington on 14 June 2017. She was just 24 years
At the time of her death, six of her Dwelling... images
were being exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale in a project called the Diaspora Pavilion, in which a group
of contemporary artists from racially diverse backgrounds
presented work on the theme of migration and displacement.
The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak,
hailed Saye’s contributions as at once ‘heartwarming’ and
‘haunting’, with ‘an ancient look to them, as if they had
been discovered in some 19th-century scrapbook.’
Their appearance was down to the artist’s choice of medium. Invented in the
Victorian era, tintype photography is made (in black-and-white)
using a wet metal plate and collodion solution. With the
appearance of age comes the sense of fragility: a fragility
that, since the Grenfell blaze, one might ruefully interpret
in light of Khadija’s own.
‘Whilst exploring the notions of spirituality and rituals, the process of image-making became a ritual in itself’ — Khadija Saye
The artist was given her first camera by her father at the age of nine,
and photography was a childhood passion she would turn into
a career. She went on to do a BA in the subject at the University
of the Creative Arts, in Farnham, producing work that increasingly
explored her personal, cultural identity.
Saye’s graduation project, in 2013, was a series called Crowned,
in which she captured an array of black women’s hairstyles.
Her mother and friends were the sitters, all shot in a makeshift
studio in her apartment on Grenfell Tower’s 20th floor.
‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe was her first
major series [but it] drew on her previous, photographic
work,’ says Green. ‘It was a privilege for those of us who
knew Khadija to watch her make it.’ (Saye and Green met in
2014, when the former successfully submitted work to a London
exhibition, for which the latter was on the selection committee.
Saye would take a role as Green’s studio assistant shortly afterwards.)
Given how relatively few black women feature in 19th-century
portraiture, the Dwelling... works have an unnerving
sense of the incongruous about them — an incongruity, that
is, between medium and subject. In turn, this provokes thoughts
of historic, racial inequality.
Also, unlike photographic practice today — when most of us
need do little more than press a button on our phones — tintypes
are open to the effect of outside elements, most obviously
the quality and constancy of light. As Saye herself put it,
‘whilst exploring the notions of spirituality and rituals,
the process of image-making became a ritual in itself.’
On 5 October, as part of the Post-War and Contemporary Day Auction at Christie’s London, two works by the artist are being offered:
Nak Bejjen, an original tintype of a work from the
Dwelling... series; and a portfolio set of nine silkscreen
prints of each Dwelling... image (number one in an
edition of 50).
A substantial proportion of the proceeds will go to The Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, encouraging young people into the arts at IntoUniversity centres across the UK. (IntoUniversity is a charity that works with disadvantaged young people, in a bid to give them the skills and confidence to gain a place in higher education. It supported Saye for a decade, culminating in her winning a sixth-form scholarship at Rugby School.)
‘Khadija Saye’s career was cut tragically short in its prime,
and it is Christie’s honour to support the legacy of this
talented woman by offering these standout works,’ says Katharine Arnold, Director
of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie's London.
‘Her tender and candid images explore questions of identity
as a young Gambian woman living in Britain,’ the specialist continues. ‘She is sorely
missed, and we hope to achieve a landmark price for her inaugural
works at auction — to fulfil the ambitions of The Khadija
Saye IntoArts programme.’