Celebrating the art of Khadija Saye, a Grenfell fire victim

We speak to close friends of the photographer, who made wonderful, deep connections with people and whose work is currently being exhibited at the Venice Biennale

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Khadija Saye

Khadija Saye is a 24-year-old victim of the Grenfell Tower fire which has offically claimed 79 lives (although the number is expected to rise into triple figures). She and her mother, who is also presumed to have passed away, lived on the 20th floor of the building. She asked for prayers from her friends on social media before she lost contact with the world. This was an artistic woman with a big heart and easy smile. One who made many friends and possessed a strong sense of spirituality – all of which is reflected within her work.

Khadija was a talented photographer, and her images, Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe, are currently on display at the prestigious Venice Biennale art fair as part of the Diaspora Pavilion, until November 26. It was late last year that she won the competition to be exhibited at the Biennale and mentored by artist Almudena Romero. The Pavilion itself has been conceived and curated by David A Bailey and Jessica Taylor as a “coming-together of 19 artists whose practices in many ways expand, complicate and even destabilise diaspora as term”.

The photos, which were made using an old-fashioned process called collodion tintype, are a mixture of monochrome, grey-toned self-portraits – sometimes uncomfortable, dramatic and slightly sensual. All conjuure up associations with colonialism – of course, you can’t look at seemingly ‘ancient’ portraits of black women without thinking about our traumatic history. Khadija herself said the series focuses on “spirituality that transcends specific religions”. In one image, she partakes in a ritual using Gambian artefacts – a tééré amulet and cow horn.

Khadija grew up in London with her Gambian mother Mary Mende and had lived in Grenfell Tower for a number of years. She went to a local secondary school in west London before winning a scholarship to the £11k-a-year Rugby School, where she completed sixth form. Lou Johnson, one of her best friends of seven years, says the artist was born in the UK but did spend a few years living outside of the country in Gambia. They met during the first week of their course at UCA Farnham, where they were both studying photography.

“She forms the most wonderful connections with people and I think that is what people sense when they are being photographed by her – they felt at ease in her presence, they let her in” – Lou Johnson on Khadija Saye

“Together with our friends Charlotte and Lauren, we quickly became inseparable,” says Lou. “We shared and still share a remarkable connection. Talking about Khadija’s work, she says that from her first submission at university it was clear that the photographer had a “natural, instinctive talent and love” for portraiture.

“She put her heart and soul into every piece of work she made. She forms the most wonderful connections with people and I think that is what people sense when they are being photographed by her – they felt at ease in her presence, they let her in.”

This was never more evident than when Khadija photographed trans writers and activists Charlie Craggs and Kuchenga Shenje. “I had my hair natural and the compliments Khadija gave were sincere and unpretentious,” says Kuchenga, reminiscing about the shoot. “This touched me because she asked none of the obtuse, invasive questions one is used to as a trans girl meeting someone new.”

“She was just so at ease. Her camera was a friend. I didn’t feel exposed. Just seen... She captured our strength and beauty without objectifying us. It’s a funny moment to reflect on, too. We both look different now. Softer and more passable. But it took bravery for us to be witnessed standing up for ourselves and other trans women in spite of our dysphoria.”

Another long-term friend, Letitia Kamayi, says it was Khadija’s Crowned series, a collection of eight photographs showing the nape of the neck and back view of intricate black hairstyles, taken in 2013, that stood out for her. The project, particularly beautiful for those of us who understand the significance of black women’s hair, was her final degree show series. According to Letitia, it was also shown at a gallery in the ICA. 

“It was just a simple, beautiful project, that kind of showed, not just hair, but the culture and the people and the community that she was in and that she was part of and that she wanted to represent,” says Letitia. “Everything that everyone’s been saying about her, her beautiful smile and how she lights up the room, is completely true. There’s no falsification.”

“She was just so at ease. Her camera was a friend. I didn't feel exposed. Just seen...” – Kuchenga Shenje on Khadija Saye

Nicola Green, an artist and the wife of Labour MP David Lammy, was also touched by Crowned. “We had just adopted a beautiful baby girl and I was having a lot of conversations with my husband about being the mother of a child whose hair was different to mine,” says Nicola, who was Khadija’s mentor and friend. “It was really something that inspired me a lot at the time. Khadija’s work would have struck me anyway, but that was why I put it in the centre wall of the exhibition I was curating.”

Nicola also explains that, earlier in the year, Khadija had been wrongfully arrested. “It was a really traumatic experience, but she did not focus on it a lot and instead channelled her experience and came to terms with what had happened through her art, the work that she made for the Diaspora Pavilion. I had the honour to see that work as it progressed.” Khadija had help in clearing her name from Lammy, who says that she was a “wonderful young woman”.

Frustratingly, Khadija seemingly wasn’t as contactable as she could have been in her final hours, as reportedly the police had held on to her phone. “I didn’t know that her phone had been taken away (until yesterday), because when we last spoke, we were going to meet on that Tuesday evening to go to a talk,” says Letitia. “She was really looking forward to it, she’d got her ticket and everything. We were going to meet each other for it and also just have a catch-up.”

To my knowledge, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Khadija, but I knew her, and her work, through social media. We both went through Creative Access internships – one of the few charities actively serving talented young black and brown artists and journalists. Trawling through her Twitter profile and posts in the WoC groups we were both a part of on Facebook only serves to solidify the talented, kind and intelligent image of the woman that her friends have been describing. Her work and words shine out of even the dullest of computer screeens.

Another of Khadija’s friends and fellow Diaspora Pavilion artist Ray Fiasco, however, describes just how powerful it is to see Khadija’s work in person. “We’re so used to looking at it on a screen, but in person it touches you in a different way,” he says. “It calms you. It has a quiet power. The moment I saw them (the Dwelling photographs), I could see the textures and the delicacy.”

Ray first met Khadija in 2015, and describes her as the type of person who would always be smiling whenever you saw her. “We spoke our success into existence,” he says, a fellow black artist who wasn’t necessarily expecting to be exhibited at the Venice Biennale so early on in his career. “We had that special moment having achieved something so monumental together.”

A lot has already been said by critics and fans alike about the significance of Khadija’s work, and the last thing her friends seem to want is for it to be irretrievably connected to such tragedy. The Grenfell Tower fire was a shocking, political event, which revealed the dirty underbelly of our incumbent government and its ongoing disregard for those of us who are black and brown and poor, but for Lou, Letitia, Kuchenga, Ray and Nicola, while Grenfell might be the reason why some of the wider world discovered Khadija’s work, it is not the reason why it resonates with so many people.

As Lou says: “I truly believe she was very much at the tipping point of her career, and know it was only a matter of time before she became more internationally recognised for her work. I’m heartbroken it has taken this tragedy, and losing her, to give her and her work the recognition they deserve.”

Support the crowdfunder to set up the Khadija Saye Memorial Fund here

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