Rose Strang reflects on the life and work of Khadija Saye, an important emerging artist who lived on the 20th floor of the Grenfell tower and died last week.
Two days ago I hadn’t heard of Khadija Saye. There was a time when I kept up with the latest artists featuring at the Venice Biennale but it’s not a world I mix in these days. So I went online to explore her recent series, titled Dwelling: a place to breathe, which took inspiration from her recent journey to Gambia where she explored Gambian spiritual traditions. Looking at it triggered my first deeper reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire. I cried of course, but I was also inspired and deeply impressed by her work.
The works are copyrighted so please take a look at them here.
I share the anger that millions of people across Britain now feel about the greed and inhumane motives that are the cause of this fire spreading so rapidly; the recent refurbishment of Grenfell Tower as part of ‘regeneration’ efforts, or more accurately yet another vanity project, consisting of un-required new ground floor communal areas with bland artworks, and the choice of plastic cladding to improve surface appearance and save money.
I have no doubt this was intended as a quick makeover, so that the surrounding high value homes, mansions and new builds of Kensington wouldn’t lose value. There was no upgrade to the fire safety system despite many warnings and letters sent by residents to the local Council. The new cladding was guaranteed to blaze rapidly throughout each (un-contained in terms of fire spread) floor of the 24 storey tower block.
This morning Saye’s death was confirmed and when I looked through her artworks I felt the loss of a loved, respected, humanitarian woman in her early twenties. She was also a talented artist whose work, as mentioned, was selected for this year’s Venice Biennale.
There is no easy interpretation of these photographs and no paraphrasing by the artist, but the title suggests to me that for Saye, her experience of Gambian spiritual rituals was liberating.
A ‘space to breathe’ for Saye may have been a place where externally imposed identities no longer exist, where race, or the sense of displacement a person might feel as an ethnic minority in the UK now separate from their cultural origins, melts away, becomes less concrete – ‘a place to breathe’ aside from all those imposed, often meaningless labels that inform the idea of identity – and surely this liberating space is at the heart of spiritual seeking.
Those were my thoughts when I looked through these photographs; just one possible interpretation. Looking at them now it’s also impossible not to think of the way Saye died two nights ago. Yet, although she was only in her early twenties she already had a deeply insightful approach to life – as a young artist she was on the verge of great success, her life was rich, her work respected and it’s clear from all the messages and statements from those who knew Khadija Saye, that she was a much-loved humanitarian activist for people from all groups of society.
She is an inspiration and, given the current state of UK politics, I want to believe that she and others like her represent a future that is still possible.