Khadija Saye: artist on cusp of recognition when she died in Grenfell

Work of Khadija Saye, who died in Wednesday’s fire, was being exhibited at Venice Biennale and had caught eye of influential director

The day before she died, Khadija Saye had met an influential gallery director who was blown away by the young artist’s work and wanted to meet her. After years of striving to create her work while studying and holding down a job as a care worker, it felt like her moment to shine had come.

Her work was being exhibited as part of a showcase of emerging artists at the Venice Biennale, and now an important gallery was offering to show her art. The director had wanted to meet at her studio, not knowing she worked out of the 20th-floor flat she shared with her mother.

But by Wednesday morning, instead of her name being discussed as one of the most exciting young artists to emerge out of London, it was stories of her desperate Facebook messages sent from the top of that tower that were being shared.

“In the last few weeks she had been invited to show in all kinds of serious galleries, her dreams were actually beginning to manifest themselves in the most exciting way,” said Nicola Green, an artist who had been a mentor to the 24-year-old for the last three years. “Khadija’s story is inspirational, it needs to be told so that other Khadijas in the world hear it – that is the important legacy of her incredible story.”

Born in London, Saye lived with her Gambian mother in Grenfell Tower. She had gone to a local school, but at 16 won a full scholarship to the prestigious Rugby school, said Green, who is married to the Tottenham MP David Lammy.

“She was incredibly grateful for the experience, but she told me it was one of the most difficult things she had done,” said Green. “It was a completely different world to the one she was part of – she was living at the top of Grenfell Tower and the school was full of privileged people who sometimes seemed to her to have no understanding of that privilege.

“It gave her an understanding that confidence is a mysterious thing – she was in search of it because she’d seen it. I think maybe it gave her the tenacity and determination to find it in herself.”

Saye had overcome significant obstacles to become an artist. At one stage she was wrongfully arrested, clearing her name with the help of Lammy and her solicitor. “Khadija was a beautiful young woman who had blossomed over the last few years,” said Lammy. “She had lived with this horrible accusation and it was devastating, but instead of anger she poured it into her work.”

Yet despite her name being cleared, police had kept the artist’s phone. She had no phone to call for help in the early hours of Tuesday morning, which is why she had taken to Facebook, said Lammy. “I am desperate about that fact,” he said.

One of a series of photographs by Khadija Saye that are on show at the Diaspora pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale
One of a series of photographs by Khadija Saye that are on show at the Diaspora pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. Photograph: Khadija Saye

After school, Saye went on to study at the University for the Creative Arts, where she was part of a tightly knit group of four women who lived and created together. One of the group, Lou Johnson, said she was “one of the most remarkable people I have ever, and probably will ever, meet,” adding that she had an infectious smile. “She touched so many lives and made such a wonderful and lasting impression,” Johnson said. “I’m so proud of all she achieved and was going to achieve.

“I miss her so much, and will forever have her in my thoughts.”

Her best friend, photographer Charlotte Levy, remembers days and nights spent alongside each other in the home, studio and darkroom they shared. “She was just the most incredible person, she went through so much stuff, but she always listened and was always there for you,” she said. “She was making such powerful work, but still saying she didn’t have a clue. She was such a beautiful person, she lit up a room.”

Others echoed the idea that she brought a powerful light into the world. “She had an energy about her,” said fellow artist Ray Fiasco, who exhibited alongside Saye as part of the Diaspora Platform at the Venice Biennale – a pavilion curated by David A Bailey to showcase young racially and culturally diverse emerging artists. “She glowed, that’s the best I can describe it.

“We had just been to Venice, it was such a special moment. Her work got a massive reception. We had only just started making history but we all – her community, me, Britain – have lost someone very, very special.

“If that’s where she was starting out, who knows where she would have ended up,” Fiasco added.

Friends described her close loving relationship with her mother, Mary Mendy, also missing in the blaze. “Khadija had the most beautiful, soulful spirit, she was so deeply connected to her mother and her own spirituality,” said Green, who started mentoring Saye after falling in love with her work while judging the Discerning Eye competition.

Saye had also faced financial barriers. “In practical terms, she had no money, she was supporting herself and using her money to fund her own work,” said Green. “She didn’t known anyone in the art world, she didn’t come from that world, but she was so clear about her own work and her desire to create.”

It was her work Dwelling: in this space we breathe, a series of photographs at the Venice Biennale using 19th-century techniques exploring the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practice that made Andrew Nairne, director of Kettle’s Yard gallery, meet her just before her untimely death.

“That she had created such a remarkable, powerful, original series of works was quite extraordinary,” he said. “It’s an absolute tragedy – this was such a confident first body of work, but there was so much more to come. She had a remarkable future ahead of her.”


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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