In Memory of Khadija Saye
Emerging photographer Khadija Saye and her mother Mary Mendy were on the 20th floor apartment when the fire struck, and were among the victims of the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy in London.
Born in London, 24-year-old Saye lived and worked in the apartment she shared with her Gambian mother. Saye was home schooled until age 16, when she won a full scholarship to the prestigious Rugby School. She would later earn a BA in photography at UCA Farnham, where she began her work on identity, diaspora, spirituality and religion, based on her Gambian heritage. With no money to afford a studio, Saye worked from her apartment while still a student. For her graduation in 2013, she explored Afro-Caribbean hairstyles and titled the series ‘Crowned’.
According to associate professor of black studies at the University of California Ingrid Banks “The series ’Crowned’ suggests a source of power, excellence or beauty…Therefore, a notion of power is embedded in the idea of hair as a black woman’s crowning glory. Hair has the ability to become a foundation for understanding how black woman view power and its relationship to self-esteem.”
Natasha Caruana, senior lecturer in photography at UCA Farnham, where Saye studied, remembers her as a shy and warm young lady “Khadija was such a warm, generous woman with an infectious laugh. I can still hear that laugh, even now. When she first joined us, she was a little on the shy side, but she quickly found herself, forming strong friendships and gaining confidence in her work.”
Caruana also describes the young artist’s early development. “But fast forward to the end of her studies and she was a confident photographer, showing her own work at the Truman Brewery. Her final major project, ‘Crowned’, really engaged with those themes of identity that captured her interest as an artist, celebrating hair and capturing those women around her. The portraits were taken in a makeshift home studio on the 20th floor; I recall with tenderness the tutorials during the making of this work, Khadija would burst in with work prints and talk with joy as she recounted her mother’s nervousness at being photographed. “
Saye’s mentor Nicola Green, an artist and the wife of Labour MP David Lammy was also touched by ‘Crowned’. “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.”
Green also revealed that the young artist was on the cusp of great things. “In the last few weeks she had been invited to show in all kinds of serious galleries, her dreams were actually beginning to manifest themselves in the most exciting way. As well as mentoring her over those three years, she also worked in my studio for a year, and there is nobody I saw Khadija come across who wasn’t touched by her kindness, consideration and soulful response to every situation. I watched her rise from a shining light of emerging talent, who was struggling to get her work into the world, to a star at the crest of a wave of international success.”
In May, Saye was selected to show her series ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’ in the Diaspora Pavilion during the Venice Biennale, alongside well-established artists such as Isaac Julien, Yinka Shonibare, Hew Locke, Barbara Walker, Joy Gregory, Kimathi Donkor and Ellen Gallagher. Created with the help of artist Almudena Romero, ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’ depicts traditional Gambian spiritual practices.
“It was an absolute pleasure working with Khadija in preparation for the Diaspora Pavilion at Venice, watching the progression of her work and seeing her excitement and modesty,” says Rhiannon Stanford, who works at Metro Imaging and helped Saye create the scans of the tintypes shown in Venice. “It was lovely to see her get such wonderful feedback for her newest works on her Gambian heritage.”
Art critic Waldemar Januszczak described Saye’s wet collodion tintypes exploring the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices as “standing out across the entire Venice Biennale”. He added: “It was some of the most moving work there.”
Another former lecturer at UCA Farnham who is presently course director of photography at Coventry University Anthony Luvera also recalls Saye’s time at the institution and calls for the preservation of her legacy.
“Her warm and genuine interest and connection to other people’s stories, particularly those who come from marginalised backgrounds or immigrant origins; the astuteness of her questioning; her ability to clearly and creatively express herself; the gentleness of her presence; and, most especially, the brightness of her laughter – Khadija’s life, her talents and the work she left behind, should continue to be celebrated widely.”
Indeed, Nicola Green, Dave Lewis and Ingrid Swenson have set up the Khadija Saye Memorial Fund to support young artists like Saye to help them realise their potential. For more information and to donate, visit https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/khadija-saye-memorial-fund.
Diaspora Pavilion is on show until November 26 2017 at the Palazzo Pisani S. Marina in Venice. (www.internationalcuratorsforum.org)
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