I spent some time in London recently and while there I wondered if the U.K. celebrates Black History Month-it turns out they do in October! My Artist a Day profiles have never been limited to U.S. artists so, in light of my recent travels, I thought I would highlight an artist whose life was tragically cut short by the Grenfell Tower fire in West London in 2017.
Khadija Saye was just 24 years old and a photographer on the brink of art world fame: her first significant body of work called Dwelling: in this space we breathe was selected for the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Diaspora Pavillion, she had just met with a gallery owner in London, and she was making plans to take her mother to the Biennale later that summer. The Grenfell Tower fire in West London claimed the lives of 71 people including Saye and her mother where they lived on the 20th floor (the flat also served as Saye’s art studio). The tragedy became more shocking when news broke that the fire’s spread was exacerbated by lax safety controls and poorly constructed cladding that accelerated the flames. To date, no arrests or prosecutions have been made since the fire and justice has been anything but swift for the residents who have lost their lives and those who remain homeless because of the event.
On the 14th of every month since the fire, residents and activists have taken to the streets in silent protest vigils to honor the victims of Grenfell and to raise awareness of the lingering class divisions that are perpetuated through silence and inaction. The rapid growth of London is jarring. When you look out over the sprawling Thames skyline it is peppered with cranes in nearly every direction, and it raises questions over just who will benefit from the development and expansion and who will be left behind.
This makes Saye’s work in Dwelling particularly relevant. The series was originally created to document the artist’s search for spiritual grounding after a personal trauma. Using traditional Gambian rituals that evoke nostalgia, Saye’s photographs reclaim cultural traditions that leverage her past to heal current pain.
The photography in this collection has a vintage pastiche, which was accomplished through the use of wet plate collodion tintype, a pre-film photographic process that uses a metal plated chemical coating that results in a dense, streaked silvery print resembling a daguerreotype. This process lends itself to portraiture, and in this beautifully haunting series, Saye used herself as the subject not only in an autobiographical journey but also as a conduit of healing for others.
Saye’s work is currently being shown at the Tate Britain and at the newly re-opened Kettle’s Yard at the University of Cambridge.