Asian and African studies blog

18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition will reopen at the British Library as soon as possible. It’s free, but because of Covid restrictions advance booking will be necessary. The exhibition run has been extended to 8 August 2021.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, when it reopens.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] 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.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room when it reopens – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until August 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
CCBY Image

The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

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