Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

Khadija Saye, artist and Grenfell victim, honoured in new public exhibition

Art project marks launch of Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, an educational initiative supporting disadvantaged communities

Breath is Invisible, a new public art project, is an installation of works by artist Khadija Saye, who died in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. Getty Images 
Breath is Invisible, a new public art project, is an installation of works by artist Khadija Saye, who died in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. Getty Images 

In photographs that look like mystical visions, a young woman is in the middle of a ritual. Sacred objects abound, ones used by spiritual healers in Gambia. The subject in the portraits is the artist herself – Khadija Saye, whose life and artistic practice met a tragic end in the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017. She was 24 years old.

On Tuesday, a new public art exhibition commemorating Saye’s life opened in London. Titled In This Space We Breathe, it features nine poster-sized prints displayed along a facade in Notting Hill.

The installation is the first part of the Breath is Invisible project, an initiative that will showcase site-specific commissions by artists as a way to highlight issues of social inequality. The next phases will include an audio-visual 3D installation by Martyn Ware and Zachary Eastwood-Bloom, and a research-based project on botany and ‘native’ species by Joy Gregory.

At the opening, British politician David Lammy, who knew Saye, announced the launch of the Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, an educational initiative that focuses on diversifying the UK arts sector and providing a platform for budding artists in disadvantaged communities.

Lammy’s wife and Saye’s mentor, artist Nicola Green, co-founded the initiative and helps run the late artist’s estate. “If we want more artists like Khadija Saye, we need to give young BAME [black, Asian, minority ethnic] people the help they need ... ⁠In London, one of the most multicultural places on earth, the art world is still, shamefully, almost completely white,” Green wrote in The Art Newspaper, explaining that the programme upholds Saye’s goals towards educational equality.

London-born Saye completed her studies in photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham. She, like her mother, whose life was also taken by the fire, worked as a carer while continuing to pursue her artistic career. Her powerful series of portraits, Dwelling: in this space we breathe, were included in the 2017 Venice Biennale, where they were displayed in the Diaspora Pavilion.

Dwelling explores Saye’s Gambian roots, but also investigates issues of identity, representation, gender and race. In her artist statement for the Venice show, she wrote: “It was necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.” In these images, a process of healing seems to unfold.

Today, only six of these tintypes remain. The rest, along with Saye’s other works, were destroyed in the Grenfell Tower fire, just a month after the artist presented her portraits in Venice.

VENICE, ITALY - JUNE 28: Photographs on display by artist Khadija Saye are seen at the Diaspora pavilion at Biennale Arte 2017 on June 28, 2017 in Venice, Italy. The work of Khadija Saye, the 24-year-old photographer who died with her mother Mary Mendy in the Grenfell Tower fire in West London last week, is on show in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in a presentation curated by David A Bailey featuring emerging artists from diverse cultural backgrounds. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)
Photographs on display by artist Khadija Saye are seen at the Diaspora pavilion at Biennale Arte 2017 in Venice, Italy. Getty Images

The incident has been a point of discussion for institutional racism in the UK, as the deaths from the 60-hour blaze were mostly of people from BAME communities.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry was launched in 2017, with the first phase concluding that the tower’s exterior did not comply with building regulations and therefore exacerbated the rapid spread of the fire. The hearings for the second phase of the inquiry returned this week, which have revealed the tower’s lead fire safety consultant ignored documents that proposed insulating materials for the building.

Saye and her mother, Mary Mendy, were among the 72 victims who died in the fire.

The exhibition In This Space We Breathe will run until October, after which the prints will be sold and proceeds will go to the Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme and the artist’s estate.

More information can be found on breathisinvisible.com

Updated: July 9, 2020 04:40 PM

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