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In the final series of photographs she made before her tragic death, Khadija Saye turned the camera towards herself. Most of the wet plate collodion tintypes are portraits of the artist looking away, or with her eyes closed, or with her back to the viewer. She holds sacred objects, each used by spiritual healers in Gambia. In one, an amulet is strung over her closed eyes, her head slightly upturned, skyward, as though she is transcendent, or hoping to transcend. It is difficult to imagine the images except as prescient. At their very core they seem to possess the knowledge of looming absence.
Saye’s death in a London apartment building fire was due to corporate and political malfeasance. The cladding used when the Grenfell Tower was refurbished was the cheaper, more flammable option. In a conscientious world, her death and those of at least 78 others, including her mother, could have been averted. Instead, the sudden horror of her death has cast a shadow over her work and life, short as it was. But to dwell on threnody is to do her a disservice. She aspired to something higher. On her website, she describes Dwelling: in this space we breathe, her final body of work on view at the Diaspora Pavilion of this year’s Venice Biennale, as an attempt to explore a “deep rooted urge to find solace within a higher power.”
The only time I met Khadija Saye, I first watched her weep in response to one of the installations at the Nigeria Pavilion, Peju Alatise’s “Flying Girls.” She had visited a few hours before the official opening, in the company of an older British artist, Barbara Walker. I recall the hush with which my colleagues pointed out that a woman was weeping. I stepped closer to watch, and felt grateful. For a show we toiled to organize (I was associate curator), Khadija Saye’s visceral acknowledgement was a kind of endorsement. Later, when we were introduced and she gave me her complimentary card, I regarded the geniality of her presence. Days afterward, I visited the Diaspora Pavilion in search of her portraits.
Dwelling is preceded by Home. Coming, photographs taken when Saye returned to Gambia, where her family is from. The images — a mix of portraits, street scenes, and seascape — lay the conceptual foundation for her final body of work. Before turning to herself and a search for spiritual grounding, she began with the idea of home as indicative of passing time: stoic-looking older men, a similarly posed woman, the tombstone of a certain “Ellen Davies,” dogs sleeping beside mounds of red earth, a weathered, ruined wall. One image particularly relays the next turn in her work: a middle-aged man rests slightly on the hood of a Volkswagen, possibly a taxi, with a Banjul plate number. The outline of a body is noticeable at the edge of the frame, likely the photographer’s, looking and equally being seen.
For Saye, according to her artist’s statement on Dwelling in the Pavilion catalogue, “it was necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.” How black people experience and respond to trauma is varied. Saye’s photographs, if they attempt a collective response, approximate, at best, the struggles of many. Yet they succeed because of her well-considered approach to private despair. It is despair presented with the quietude of prayer, as though she relinquishes, now and again, the need for any worry.
Why did Saye choose tintypes? At the outset of her career, each of her series attempted its own formal language. Collaborating with Almudena Romero, a Spanish-born London-based visual artist who works with a wide range of photographic processes, Saye seems to have perceived in tintypes a form suitable to expressing spiritual solace. “The journey of making wet plate collodion tintypes,” her artist statement notes, “is unique: no image can be replicated and the final outcome is beyond 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.” In the photographs she is surrounded by metallic mist, her body appearing in resolute calm and surrender. If tintypes date to the earliest decades of the medium, so does spirit photography. What Dwelling implies, then, is that photography can elucidate the revelatory. It can portray a space in which one exhales and is poised.
Self-portraits memorialize death in a way no other artistic medium can. Looking at the once-photographed dead, we know they were alive, at least for the fraction of a moment. Saye’s youth, and her urge to connect to Gambian spirituality, is preserved in these photographs. Perhaps forever, but readily as well. The continued exhibition of her work, long after her death, will be an insistence on her promise. Her promise petered out too soon, yet its charm remains.