LONDON — Three years after the tragic death of Gambian-British artist Khadija Saye in the Grenfell Tower fire, her works now sit proudly in the neighborhood of Notting Hill, as part of the new public art project, Breath is Invisible. Founded by Eiesha Bharti Pasricha and curated by Sigrid Kirk, the project grew out of an urgent need to address social inequality and foster dialogue about injustice. Beginning its series of three site-specific exhibitions with Saye’s works feels both apt and deeply personal.
Saye’s installation, in this space we breathe, gathers nine of her photographic works, and presents large-scale reproductions on the wide facade of Westbourne Grove — a mere 20 minute walk from the site where she died. The photographs explore traditional Gambian spiritual practices as espoused by Saye, with the artist once describing the works as “created from a personal need for spiritual grounding after experiencing trauma. The search for what gives meaning to our lives and what we hold onto in times of despair.” It is fitting then for Saye’s works to be displayed, publicly and unavoidably, much like the collective grief of the Black and brown communities that still mourn the lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire.
The installation sits as a monument of great loss but also as a public reminder of the seemingly neglectful nature of government when it comes to people of color, especially Black women. Saye herself is the subject of the black and white tintypes, each of which possess an other-worldly quality. The ethereal self-portraits often render the artist with her eyes obscured, either by flowers or hands, or with her face turned away from the lens altogether. Works where Saye does gaze directly at an imagined audience thus feel even more haunting and captivating, encouraging the viewer to bear witness to a Black woman who likely often went unseen in the city she called home.
In May 2017, at the age of 24, Saye became the youngest artist featured in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, just a month prior to her death. The loss of such a young and promising Black woman artist will remain keenly felt but Saye’s legacy continues to encourage us to take up space — to be seen, heard, and live, especially in the face of despair.
Khadijah Saye: in this space we breathe continues through August 7 at 236 Westbourne Grove, London. The installation was curated by Sigrid Kirk. Breath is Invisible will continue with forthcoming projects by Martyn Ware and Zachary Eastwood-Bloom, and Joy Gregory through October 9.