Promising Young Artist Killed in Grenfell Tower Fire Receives Memorial Exhibit at Tate
In Sothiou, a silk-screened print of a photograph on display at Tate Britain until the end of June, the artist is also the subject. She strikes a determined pose, turning her back to the spectator, wearing a West African headdress, and grasping in her left hand a sacred object used by Gambian spiritual healers. The technique used to produce the original photograph—a procedure called collodion wet plate process—dates from the 19th century. It gives the image a mercurial and faded quality, as if it were an imagined memory. In the bottom right corner, there is a small signature written in pencil, so slight it could easily be missed: “Khadija.”
Khadija Saye was a British photographer, activist, and part-time care worker who was killed at the age of 24—with her mother and at least 77 others—in the Grenfell Tower fire in West London. As The Guardian reported, her artistic work was on the “cusp of recognition” before the night of Tuesday, June 13th, when the poorly maintained public housing block she lived in, on the 20th floor, set aflame and burned for days, sparking a national crisis and ongoing debate about class, race, and housing in 21st-century Britain.
As a tribute, Tate Britain is displaying Sothiou, a silkscreen print from Saye’s six collodion plate series at the Venice Biennale, “Dwelling: in this space we breathe.” It can be found, next to a small bouquet of white roses, in the Tate’s memorial space, a luminous atrium on the western edge of the main floor. In a statement, Andrew Wilson, senior curator of modern and contemporary British art at Tate Britain, said it was placed there to “celebrate Saye’s achievement with these new works, and also to stand in some way as a means to remember her and her neighbours in the community in Grenfell Tower.”
Saye’s story has been one of the most reported in the media, in part because she is one of the few victims to have been officially identified. It is also because she was a friend of David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, North London, who has been particularly vocal since the Grenfell fire, speaking out in anger about the social and political conditions that enabled it. Asking a forceful question about the criminal investigation into the fire in the House of Commons yesterday, Lammy lamented Saye’s death, saying that he and, principally, his wife had “mentored, employed and encouraged” her.
The artist Nicola Green, Lammy’s wife, first met Saye when judging the Discerning Eye exhibition in 2014, an open submission competition. Saye had submitted photographs from Crowned, a series of stylized portraits of black women’s hair. The work “really spoke” to Green, who placed it in the middle of the wall that each judge was given to curate. Saye, who was working class but had won a scholarship to a prestigious private school, came to the opening night her with her mother—also a care worker.
“We had a wonderful conversation about what was in her mind when she made it,” Green says. “Then she started talking about having left college: She said that finding a way to make a mark, never mind a living, with her art and practice seemed like an impossible mountain to climb.” Saye started working part-time at Green’s gallery and became her mentee, which eventually culminated in her becoming the youngest exhibitor in the newly formed Diaspora Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
“[Venice] was a transformative moment for her,” Green says. “She was name-checked and mentioned specifically in so many of the reviews of the Diaspora Pavilion. She was approached by museum directors and galleries. Several people had approached us to buy the work. Lorna Simpson, who was Saye’s heroine, had come in and admired the work too.”
During these formative years Saye worked also as an activist and educator. One of the groups she volunteered for is Jawaab, a grassroots charity that supports young Muslims and runs anti-racism workshops, where she produced videos about educational inequality and taught London school children photography skills.
“She was just so at ease with absolutely everyone, whether it was school kids or impressive and intimidating-sounding people like MPs,” Nadia Inha says, program coordinator at Jawaab. “She wasn’t one of those artists separated from the context in which they live. She had come from an area that was quite deprived, where people weren’t represented the way they should be, and she really passionately cared about that.”
A few days after the fire, volunteers from Jawaab went to Latymer Road in West London and made a small memorial tribute to her. “Some of us wrote poems,” Nadia says. “A lot of the messages were saying that we would continue struggling for what she was campaigning for, which was not only greater recognition in an artistic sense but social justice and equality.”
Dwelling: in this space we breathe, which features the artist posing with sacred objects from Gambia, represents the end of a tragically short career—according to Green, most of Saye’s physical work perished in the apartment too. But it is nonetheless a profoundly mature work: the culmination of her life-long interest in questions of identity, belonging and rootedness.
As has been reported elsewhere, earlier this year Saye was wrongly arrested—her name was cleared with the help of Lammy—an episode that proved to be deeply traumatic for her. (On the night of the fire, the police allegedly still had her confiscated cell phone.) In the artist’s statement for Dwelling: in this space we breathe, she implies that the project was nourished by this damaging encounter with the British state, something that Green confirms.
“The series,” the text reads, “was created out of the artist’s personal need for spiritual grounding after experiencing trauma. The work is based on the search for what gives meaning to our lives and what we hold onto in times of despair and life changing challenges. We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance.”