Photographs by the late artist, who was just at the beginning of her career when she died in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, are now on display in a new public art project in Notting Hill
At the 2017 Venice Biennale, the British artist Khadija Saye exhibited a series of photographs entitled Dwelling: in this space we breathe. That year, the Biennale hosted its first 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 Isaac Julien and Yinka Shonibare. Saye presented a series of self-portraits created using the 19th-century technique wet plate collodion tintype, an intricate process, which explored her heritage and identity, having grown up in London, born to Gambian parents. She described the powerful portraits as exploring “the migration of the traditional Gambian spiritual practices”.
Now, the photographs of Dwelling: in this space we breathe are being exhibited in London once again, as part of a new public art project entitled Breath is Invisible, founded by Eiesha Bharti Pasricha and curated by Sigrid Kirk; the works appear on the outside of 236 Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill. Three years on from Saye’s photography first showing in Venice, this new exhibition is especially poignant given the Diaspora Pavilion was to be her final show: in June 2017, at the age of just 24, Saye died in the Grenfell Tower fire, along with her mother and 70 other individuals. Though her work was acclaimed and she was beginning to gain recognition, Saye’s artistic career was tragically cut short and we can only imagine what she would have gone on to achieve.
The exhibition of Saye’s photography marks the first instalment of Breath is Invisible – two more public exhibitions will follow later this year, from the artists Martyn Ware, Zachary Eastwood-Bloom and Joy Gregory – which was “born out of an urgency to address issues of social inequality and injustice” and launched by the Labour MP David Lammy, who was a friend of Saye’s. The artists participating in Breath is Invisible have chosen local organisations to support through the exhibitions: Amplify Studios, The Harrow Club and The Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme. The latter organisation – newly launched by Nicola Green and IntoUniversity – aims to address the lack of diversity in the UK’s art world, and works with young BAME individuals from disadvantaged communities. Sales proceeds from silkscreen prints of Saye’s photographs from Dwelling: in this space we breathe will go to The Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme and the Estate of Khadija Saye.
“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,” Saye herself described of Dwelling: in this space we breathe as it was exhibited in Venice. “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. 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.”