Time is running out for visitors to experience Sharjah Biennial 15, the flagship art event running at various locations across the emirate until Sunday. Conceived by Nigerian curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor and curated by Sharjah Art Foundation director, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, this year's theme of Thinking Historically in the Present bridges the past and present through a lens of post-colonialism.
On show at Al Hamriyah Studios in the coastal area of Al Hamriyah is an exhibition of works by late Gambian-British artist, Khadija Saye, exploring traditional African spirituality and ritual as embodied practices to overcome trauma.
Included in the show is a series titled Dwelling: in this space we breathe. Saye originally produced the photographic self-portraits in 2017 for the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, shortly before her death on June 14 that year in the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people.
Contemplating the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices, the works comprise tintypes, which Saye created using the traditional wet collodion process. They draw on her earlier explorations of her mixed-faith background, identity and heritage – previously seen in her project Home.Coming, a series of portraits taken during her travels in Gambia.
The Diaspora Pavilion at Venice was co-founded and directed by artist Nicola Green – who is known for depicting world and religious leaders in her In Seven Days and Encounters projects. Green not only witnessed and supported Saye's artistic growth in life, but continues to nurture her legacy beyond – having founded The Khadija Saye Arts Programme at IntoUniversity, which encourages and supports young people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue careers in the arts.
"Saye was raised in Ladbroke Grove, West London. She grew up in a dual-faith household, attending church with her Christian mother and mosque with her Muslim father," says Green. The artist had a "deep interest in identity, activism, heritage and spirituality," she adds.
"She often spoke about her multifaith heritage, which was a source of constant inspiration in both her work and her search for self-understanding.”
This, she says, is most apparent in Dwelling: in this space we breathe. She adds: “The collodion process, developed in the 19th century, is incredibly precarious because of the fragile glass plate, the unpredictability of the chemical reaction, and the limited period of time the artist has to develop the image once it has been exposed," she says. "For Saye, this process reinforced the ritualistic aspect of the work and the surrendering of oneself to spirituality and a higher power.”
Green points to an excerpt that Saye herself wrote, which states: “Whilst exploring the notions of spirituality and rituals, the process of image making became a ritual in itself. The journey of making wet plate collodion tintypes is unique in the sense that no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control."
Saye added: “Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice. Each tintype has its own unique story to tell, a metaphor for our individual human spiritual journey."
The artist said the process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignited memories of baptism, alongside “the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound”.
"The application of the collodion transcends the photographic process – it is a reflection, physical manifestation of my relationship to the deep-rooted tradition of African spirituality," Saye said. "The laborious process involved with tintypes addresses the current disposable era where materials are rapidly produced and short-lived. We forget to live through the moment, remain in the silence and work on our internal connections.”
Green says the works received widespread critical acclaim at the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice, where Saye established her reputation as “an emerging talent”.
She adds: “Saye created a large body of tintype works, and there were initially many other artworks in Dwelling: in this space we breathe." However, the artist was only able to display six pieces at the Diaspora Pavilion and "agonised over which to choose", Green adds, before settling on Andichurai, Limon, Nak Bejjen, Peitaw, Sothiou and Teere.
“Tragically, all of the original tintypes, except for the six on display in Venice, and the rest of the artist’s oeuvre, were destroyed in the Grenfell Tower Fire in June 2017," Green says.
Saye created a silkscreen print of one of the tintypes, Sothiou and together with the Studio of Nicola Green, master printer Matthew Rich and Jealous Gallery, produced a limited edition of 50 signed and dated prints. After the artist’s death, the raw scans of the six artworks shown at Venice, and three previously unseen pieces, were recovered.
“The tintype scans were used to create silkscreen prints using the exact same methods and process as Saye had used to make Sothiou,” explains Green.
“These have been brought together in a limited-edition portfolio set. Each portfolio of silkscreen prints includes the original signed, dated and numbered silkscreen print of Sothiou created by Khadija Saye and additional prints created posthumously, including the three unseen artworks. These silkscreen prints can be seen on display at Sharjah.”
Also included at Sharjah Biennial is a photograph from an earlier series called Crowned, which Saye submitted as her graduation piece at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. Green, who founded the Diaspora Pavilion that brought Saye’s work to Venice, recalls how Crowned first introduced her to Saye’s talent.
“I was a judge and curator for the Discerning Eye exhibition in 2014 and selected her series, Crowned," she adds. "She came to the opening night so excited – it was her first exhibition after her degree show. She stood with her mother Mary next to her artwork, brimming with enthusiasm.”
Green explains: “Crowned is a series of photographs of friends, family and neighbours, celebrating the identity and power of black women through images of their hair. Saye photographed Crowned in her home on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower with, in her own words: ‘£0 [no money], just some black velvet with beautiful friends and family'.
“The artist wrote that black women’s hair has rarely been adored simply for its beauty and uniqueness, particularly in the face of the endless kinks and unruly stands that dominate the discourse surrounding natural styles.”
Green recalls that Saye had always hoped to live her life “opening doors” for others. The artist once said: “When you go to a gallery or museum … you can count the number of people of colour in the room. If I can do it, my friends can do it. If you don’t see yourself represented, I think you can do it.”
This ethos can be traced all the way back to Saye’s childhood. At the age of seven, her talents were recognised by IntoUniversity, which enrolled her in the Carnival Arts Programme. Green says Saye remained perpetually enthusiastic and grateful for her experiences.
“Throughout her life, she was vehement about educational inequality, focused on opening doors for others and working towards a future in which a child’s background would not fix their destiny," she adds.
“After her senseless death and with the encouragement of her family, I began working with IntoUniversity and founded The Khadija Saye Arts Programme, which encourages and supports young people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds to have careers in the arts.”
Apart from being “exceptionally hard-working" and determined to establish a career in the arts, Saye was also politically engaged and dedicated herself to issues of social justice, Green adds.
Saye volunteered at the non-profit Jawaab to educate and empower young Muslims, and worked on a short film covering educational inequality, while also training younger students in photography.
Away from her life and work, there is an additional element to Saye’s artistic journey that resonates with Sharjah Biennial 15. In 2015, two years before her own participation at the Diaspora Pavilion, she visited the Venice Art Biennale as part of the first phase of the Diaspora Platform Programme.
Curiously, that year’s biennale was curated by Enwezor – who played a formative part in Sharjah Biennial 15. Green recalls: “Okwui's support was invaluable to the Diaspora Pavilion and he was proud and delighted to see the emerging artists in 2017.
“The notion of thinking historically in the present was central to all the artist's work in the Diaspora Pavilion, but, by reviving the Victorian tintype technique, Khadija was quite literally thinking historically in the present and so I know that Okwui would be delighted to see Khadija's work in this biennale,” she tells The National.
Reflecting on Saye’s life, Green says: “Khadija Saye remains a source of light. Her warmth has been widely written about and, like so many others, I found her unusual in her graciousness, kindness and determination.
“Like so many others touched by Khadija, I had the privilege of watching her rise from a shining light of emerging talent, who was struggling to get her work into the world, to a star at the crest of a wave of international success. It is impossible to believe that such a positive force of energy and power is gone from this world.”
Dwelling: in this space we breathe runs at Al Hamriyah Studios, Al Hamriyah, as part of Sharjah Biennial until June 11. More information is available at sharjahart.org/biennial-15