Memoir I: Identity

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all of these memoirs is to educate

Volume II is about sharing the stories of today’s artists, in my home city, London. As an art blogger based in London, it is only right that I start this new series with Khadija Saye.

Throughout my time in London, I have seen many tragedies: the London riots, the London bombings and many more. However, the one tragedy that has affected me even to this day is Grenfell.

Located in the richest borough in London, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea,

stood a tower, “Grenfell Tower”. Attached to the tower was aluminium cladding, with its purpose being to improve heating and energy efficiency, and the building’s external appearance. On multiple occasions, the people of Grenfell told the council that their building had multiple inadequacies. Out of date fire extinguishers, along with one entrance and one exit. The people of Grenfell knew that the building was ground zero for a big catastrophe, but they were ignored. The council was told ominously by a report, “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence”.

Grenfell was a tragedy that glued me and my mother to the television. As hours would pass by new information would come out, from the number of deaths to the failings of the council.

After the fire was extinguished, the firemen were sung praises, the queen visited the survivors to express her condolences. However, when Theresa May Prime Minister at the time and Sadiq Khan Mayor of London visited the area, May was booed out and Sadiq Khan was bombarded with a barrage of questions. I don’t blame the residents for acting out this way, because they were let down by the establishment. The establishment whose sole purpose is to “serve” everyone in this country. The residents of the area wanted answers and immediately.

When I look at an event such as Grenfell, it puts things into perspective. Especially the intersectionality of both class and race, and how they can impact a person’s treatment by the establishment. Yes, Grenfell was home to white working-class individuals, but it was predominantly home to people from a BAME background, who were also working-class. If we look at today, the richest borough of London still has survivors of Grenfell living in temporary accommodation.

It is reported that 72 people died in Grenfell and I often wonder about the impact those who died could have had on society if they had lived. Who knows, one of the residents could have gone to Oxbridge, one of the residents could have discovered a new drug, that could have revolutionised modern medicine or one of the residents could have won a Nobel Prize. Nobody knows and that is the sad thing because the world will never know; that is why on 14th June 2017, as a city we lost a lot.

Before I started my journey as an art blogger, I kept on gravitating to the work of Khadija Saye because she was on the verge of becoming an international artist. Although she died at the age of 24, as an art blogger I now want to use this memoir to tell her story.

Khadija was born on 30th July 1992 in Hammersmith, London, to both Mary Mendy and Mohammadou Saye.

Khadija’s mother, Mary Mendy, was a hardworking woman and a care assistant. She came to England around the 1980s. When she gave birth to Khadija, she saw this as the greatest and proudest day of her life. From the moment Khadija was born, Mary devoted her life to Khadija.

Khadija grew up in North Kensington. She attended St Charles Primary School and then Sion Manning Roman Catholic Girls’ School now known as All Saints Catholic College.

At the age of 14, Khadija was offered an opportunity that would change her life forever. She won a scholarship to study at Rugby School. While at Rugby, Khadija received a massive culture shock, and it forced her to adapt. She saw life at Rugby as an extreme contrast to her life in Ladbroke Gove. She felt like an outsider and I don’t blame her. The people she met had such opulence, opportunity and were instilled with the mentality of “the sky is the limit”.

Khadija also had an internal battle at this time, she was fighting her urges to pursue photography at university. She thought she would have to “grow up” and do something else, with her photography being something she did on the side. With the support of her teachers and mother, she found the inner courage to pursue her dream.

In 2010, Khadija was preparing for University – she had interviews with multiple institutions. Some of her choices ranged from Edinburgh College of Arts to the University of the Arts London.

Primed with a new camera, Autumn 2010; Khadija started her degree at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham and studied photography. She was so excited to embark on this new chapter of her life.

Additionally, during 2010, Khadija produced her first series called People.

In this series, we see two girls start and end the photo series. What is interesting is that one of the girls is in carnival attire and the other is in a dress, both are wearing heels. What is even more intriguing is the landscape of the shot; they are in a snowy region. If you pay close attention to the two girls, they alternate between one looking at the camera and one looking away and you could ask. Do they feel uncomfortable in the clothes they are wearing given their surroundings? It’s hard to tell whether their body language is confident and strong or self-conscious and uncomfortable. One of the girls has her arms crossed while the other is half hiding behind her. Ironically, in the last picture, the girls seem much calmer and more comfortable when they are wearing jackets and are no longer dressed for fun. Are the jackets there to help them feel more secure or could it be symbolic of the end of their fun or even Khadija’s fun. We could even argue that the first and last picture are symbolic of life. So they could be commenting on the joy & ecstasy of life followed by its pain & solemnness.

With regards to the third picture, it is very important since it is Khadija’s mother and Khadija does a fantastic job of capturing her mother’s essence. She sits in the chair and exudes this calm and relaxed nature; she is at ease in her house. If you look at the background, a Gambian flag and a Union Jack can be seen, and various pictures of Khadija can be seen too. From this picture, we can infer that Khadija’s mum has embraced Britain as her home while still treasuring her Gambian heritage. Much of Khadija’s work looks at cultural exchanges, and the fact her mother is wearing a traditional Gambian dress with the Gambian flag and the Union Jack in the background could be highlighting the merging of cultures.

Besides her mother, I do not know who the others are but using the title of this photo series, I believe that they are all close friends or family members of Khadija. Or Alternately, people who she resonates with.

Photo 1 out of 6: People
Screenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.55.14

Photo 3 out of 6: People
Screenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.55.36

Photo 4 out of 6: People
Screenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.55.57

Photo 6 out of 6: People
Screenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.56.16

As months passed by, photography became an integral part of Khadija’s life. She would post pictures on twitter.

2012, the year of the London Olympics. Khadija increased her work rate and produced two photo-series, Eid and Home. Coming.

Khadija’s mother and father were from different faiths. She would attend church and the mosque. It is in this series that she pays respect to her Muslim heritage. October 26th 2012, was Eid Al Adha. In this photo series, we see a series of photos all dedicated to Eid Al Adha. On this day, a town hall was transformed into a mosque and she positioned herself over the service and took the shots we see here. With each photo, we transition through the service.

During the series, Khadija captures some young girls looking around the room in the 5th and 9th photo. It is easy to relate to them because, like them, we too are observing the room and trying to take every detail in. They might also be centralised as a way for us to remember the importance of helping one another; in the 9th photo, we see a group of three women and girls reaching out to the youngest girl in the group. No one is being forgotten about, and it’s an uplifting sight to see them turning around to make sure she is included. This idea of making everyone feel welcomed and loved is seen throughout the series.

Looking at the series as a whole; from the first picture, we see the men preparing their prayer mats. By the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th photo, we see the climax of the service as both male and female assume the prayer position. By the 16th photo, we see the service end, and everyone is removing their mats. Before the removal of all the mats, the gentlemen embrace each other, and photos are taken. With the service being over, joy and happiness begin to fill the room. Khadija does an excellent job, she gets superb shots, while simultaneously respecting the rules of the mosque. For someone who is not Muslim, I find this photo series to be an insightful look into the religion. As the viewer, I feel honoured because Khadija brings me into the service and the celebrations.

Photo 5 out of 19: EidScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 19.14.06

Photo 8 out of 19: EidScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 19.14.33

Photo 9 out of 19: EidScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 19.14.52

Photo 16 out of 19: EidScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.54.18

Winter 2012, Khadija visited her motherland, Gambia. While there, she did some film photography using Kodak Ektar 100 film. The pictures produced formed the series Home.Coming. Home.Coming is a photo series that shows life in Gambia. Khadija keeps every shot as natural as possible. The little girl who is the only child in this series is candid, this is perfect photography because Khadija captures the innocence of the child. In the other shots involving the adults, all are aware of the camera. If we look at some of the males, their faces are relaxed but their bodies, especially their shoulders and chest are tensed. I think the men are unconsciously doing this, as an effort to display their masculinity. Home. Coming focusses on people as well as the environment and light. In stark contrast to the snowy landscape seen in ‘People’, the colours in Home. Coming are bright and warm, seeming much more beautiful and inviting.

Photo 2 out of 12: Home. Coming
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Photo 5 out of 12: Home. ComingScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.48.27

Photo 10 out of 12: Home. ComingScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.48.45

2013, Khadija graduated from university and her final year project was called Crowned.

In March 2013 the photo series was produced. This was done with the assistance of her friends who including herself were hair models. Also, she transformed her house into her studio. All of this was done with Khadija spending in total £0. Crowned is a series that explores black female hair and for this art analysis. I thought it would be best for my friend Daniella to give her thoughts her own art analysis in this photo series.

The images share a personal connection with me because of my African heritage and experience. It is almost like looking in a mirror at the different stages of my hair journey. Natural hair, to weave, to braids…etc. I look at the series and I see myself. I see brown and blonde hair colours and it reminds me of how I love to dye my hair and use colourful braids. With every picture no matter how rough the style is, there is still an element of beauty in each. The black background makes each stand out on their own.

The series champions and celebrate black hair. It shows the variety of styles people wear. It celebrates diversity, creativity and history. It shows the process and even what lies underneath the weave. It’s real. Raw photography. It celebrates age and difference showing the backs of women who have different body frames and tones. Different styles have different associations. Some are considered to be suited more for the workplace and some are not. But in this series, each style is just allowed to be. Without criticism, without judgement. That’s the beauty of it and I love the stillness of it.

Photo 1 out of 8: CrownedScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.49.34

Photo 2 out of 8: CrownedScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.49.55

Photo 8 out of 8: CrownedScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.50.44

Crowned was a success, such a success that it captured the attention of Nicola Green wife to MP David Lammy. 2014 and Khadija was now being mentored by Nicola Green. Crowned was even exhibited during that year in the Mall Galleries in November.

After leaving university, Khadija organised a variety of projects and workshops. Many of which were aimed at tackling issues such as racism, islamophobia and our education system. In addition, she worked as a care worker.

All of Khadija’s efforts paid off and they led her to Venice, Italy. In 2017, Khadija took part in Venice Biennale, a prestigious international art exhibition, held every 2 years in Venice. If you ever want to know the Olympics of contemporary art, then this is your answer

However, when we look at the artists and the people who congregate to Venice, diversity is missing.

For an artist who is from a low socio-economic background or an Afro-Caribbean background, representation is difficult.

It is because of this, that an exhibition such as the ‘Diaspora Pavilion’ was needed in the Venice Biennale. 2017 marked the first-ever Diaspora Pavilion, the exhibition showcased talent from emerging artists from the diaspora. At just 24, Khadija was the youngest out of all the artists who took part in this exhibition.

For Khadija, the Diaspora Pavilion was a dream come true. It was a surreal experience; she would wake up and be cheerfully startled by people speaking Italian outside her window.

For the Diaspora Pavilion, Khadija exhibited the photo series, Dwelling: in this space we breathe.

This series was produced in March 2017 and was created using a Victorian photography process which predates film. Because of the metal-plated chemical coating, the pictures result in a dark dense print similar to a daguerreotype. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process. The pictures tell an interesting story because they draw on Khadija’s Gambian heritage. In each picture, Khadija is the subject. She is using six different objects which have been blessed by an animist faith healer. Animism is a ritual tradition done by Gambian communities of all faith. Although in Gambia there is only 1% of the population who only practise this. Those who believe in Christianity or Islam, still use some aspects of this belief within their daily practice. The very notion of this series is fascinating because Khadija’s mother was a Christian and her father was a Muslim. But we see both religions absent and it is just her Gambian tradition present.

Photo 2 out of 8: Dwelling: in this space we breatheScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.43.08

Photo 3 out of 8: Dwelling: in this space we breatheScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.43.28

Photo 4 out of 8: Dwelling: in this space we breatheScreenshot 2019-09-29 at 11.43.51

The exhibition was a huge success for Khadija. She established new contacts; people were bidding for her work, but most importantly her career as a respected artist was cemented.

It was not just Khadija’s work that was a success, the Diaspora Pavilion was a success too. Curators from around the world flooded the pavilion. Queues formed outside during the opening night; the Diaspora Pavilion was the number one pavilion to see.

In her own words, Khadija said, “The Khadija heading back to West London is an artist!” and good on her!

After coming back from the Diaspora Pavilion, opportunities were flying in. She was offered an internship, received e-mails regarding opportunities in New York and had several meetings with museum directors.

What is even more touching is she wanted to show her mother her work. The artist had planned to take her mother to the pavilion later that summer.

With multiple doors opened, it was at this moment that finally “the sky was the limit” for Khadija too.

When Khadija was in Venice she tweeted, “It’s been a real journey, but mama, I’m an artist exhibiting in Venice and the blessings are abundant!”. This statement here is a testimony to who Khadija Saye was. A woman from humble beginnings with infinite promise. Khadija Saye was a gentle, kind and friendly human being. An articulate woman, whose work offered insight into her own life.

I will never forget the story of Khadija Saye because she proved that you can do amazing things, even when the odds are stacked against you from birth. She showed us that our ambitions can be greater than any 24-storey building. She found success in Venice, but she saw this as a stepping stone to something greater for not only her but for the people she loved.

To see all of Khadija Saye’s work visit www.sayephoto.format.com/about

 

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