Stuart Jeffries

The guileful, soulful art of Khadija Saye

Plus: what viewers really think of Rembrandt’s the Night Watch

‘Limon’, 2017, by Khadija Saye. Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye.

Gwyneth Paltrow has a new neighbour. On the same block in Notting Hill as Gwynie’s Goop store, with its This Smells Like My Vagina scented candles and must-have child-calming essential oil sprays, a shopfront has been taken over to display a poignant series of self-portraits by a rather different woman. Khadija Saye died three summers ago with her mother in the Grenfell Tower fire. Much of the 24-year-old artist’s work was destroyed in the blaze, including three tintype images from a series of nine called ‘in this space we breathe’. The other six were displayed that summer in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Saye’s first major international exhibition.

Now, poster-sized silkscreen prints from that series have been installed in the shop windows of 236 Westbourne Grove. One can study these works online or through a special app, but to see them in this affluent neighbourhood a little over a mile from where Saye lived and died is more than worthwhile. In death, Saye has a corner in the Notting Hill of Hugh Grant, David Cameron, yoga franchises, decorous pavement cafés and eye-wateringly expensive real estate. Saye’s intimate, austere, spiritual images, steeped in her Gambian heritage, serve as something she perhaps never intended, namely a weighty rebuke to W11’s froth of conspicuous consumption.

Each poster is a reproduction of a 250mm x 200mm tintype original. Tintype, popular in the late 19th century, involved producing a photographic image on a thin sheet of metal coated with lacquer or enamel. Saye produced wet-plate collodion tintypes, according her 21st-century self-portraits the aged look of historical documents. Fitting, since she was delving deep into traditional Gambian spiritual practices.

How lovely to see these human beings, both as hard as nails and as fragile as pressed flowers

These self-portraits depict the artist holding or wearing scarcely decipherable, very nearly surreal, artefacts.

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