BY Natalie Nzeyimana in Reviews | 02 SEP 20
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Issue 214

Khadija Saye’s Reflections on Spirituality in the African Diaspora

A public art exhibition by the artist whose life was claimed by the Grenfell Tower Fire is a salve for a wounded borough

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BY Natalie Nzeyimana in Reviews | 02 SEP 20

There are two graffitied slogans on a boarded-up shopfront on London’s Westbourne Grove: ‘Justice for Grenfell’, reads one; the other, ‘NHS’, floats unexplained yet inferable. Nearby, the public art project ‘Breath Is Invisible’ finds its temporary home. Exhibited as part of this project, Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: In this Space We Breathe’ (2017) – a series of nine self-portraits – is salve for a wounded borough. Saye’s 20th-floor home-studio and body of work have become inextricably linked to the Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed her life and those of many others on 14 June 2017. Installed here, large-scale, on the facade of 236 Westbourne Grove, her works are an invitation for pilgrimage.

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Khadija Saye, Peitaw, 2017, from the series ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’, wet plate collodion tintype on metal, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Khadija Saye

Photographing herself with various sacred objects and healing instruments to explore what the show’s accompanying literature describes as ‘the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices,’ Saye defies Western assumptions regarding clearly delineated spiritual allegiances. Across West Africa, it is not uncommon for people, regardless of faith, to visit a marabout or spiritual healer. Saye’s merging of religious traditions is often read by Western critics as a comment on her parents’ marriage – her father is Muslim; her mother, who also sadly perished in the fire, was Christian – but could be a wider reflection on syncretic spirituality, a familiar truth for many Afro-diasporic peoples. Are the prayer beads cascading from Saye’s hand in Kurus Islamic misbaha? I try to count the misbaha’s customary 99 beads. In the afterlife of slavery – where Gambia’s Kunta Kinteh Island is a critical site in the history of the West African slave trade – I wonder when and how multiple syncretic spiritual practices, like those embodied in Saye’s work, were born from these cumulative, interconnected and substantive traumas.

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Khadija Saye, Kurus, 2017, from the series ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’, wet plate collodion tintype on metal, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Khadija Saye

Saye said she ‘wanted to investigate how a portrait could function as a way of announcing one’s piety, virtue, soul and prosperity’ – something she achieved in this series using the mid-19th-century photographic technique of wet-plate collodion tintype on metal. Saye noted that, in adopting this complex technique, ‘the process of image-making became a ritual in itself.’ In Toor-Toor – which in Wolof translates as ‘flower’ – Saye is adorned with various flora, merging the natural with the spirit realm in a brief moment of grounding and respite. Prosperity is also implied in Peitaw, a beautiful portrait of the artist wearing a gele and an elegant cowrie bracelet while her mouth is full of cowrie shells. The shells, which were once used as currency across Africa, are a nod to indigenous wealth and, combined with the gele, perhaps denote ceremonial regality. In the afterlife of Grenfell, these images are hauntological yet empowering.

Saye’s stated intention to explore how ‘trauma is embodied in the Black experience’ comes into conversation with the work of other contemporary artists, such as Phoebe Boswell and Kat Anderson. Exploring this via a theory of ‘hyper-local demarcation’ in her latest book, Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City (2020), Joy White has expounded the importance of creative expression and cultural heritage for young Black people in London. People like Saye.

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Khadija Saye, Toor-Toor, 2017, from the series ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’, wet plate collodion tintype on metal, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Khadija Saye

Malidoma Patrice Somé, in Ritual: Power, Healing and Community (1993), beautifully captures the urgency of collectively breathing through the pain and transforming suffering into something else: ‘We need ritual because it is an expression of the fact that we recognize the difficulty of creating a different and special kind of community. A community that doesn’t have a ritual cannot exist.’ Breathwork is critical, Saye reminds us. In the space between mourning and remembrance, we find belonging; rituals ground us and offer a home for the radical yearning Saye’s work explores. We find ourselves, and each other, between these deep breaths.

Main image: Khadija Saye, Andichurai, 2017, from the series ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’, wet plate collodion tintype on metal, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Khadija Saye

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