Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe opens at the British Library today

Sothiou. Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Today Khadija Saye’s self-portrait series, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe, opens in the British Library’s free Entrance Hall Gallery (3 December 2020 – 2 May 2021).

Composed of nine powerfully evocative silk-screen prints by Gambian–British artist Khadija Saye (1992–2017), the series demonstrates Saye’s deep concern with ‘how trauma is embodied in the black experience’ and her exploration of her Gambian heritage and mixed-faith background. Saye photographed herself with cultural, religious and spiritual objects of significance both to her Christian mother and Muslim father, and in African traditions of spirituality.

Printing photographs onto metal to create tintypes, Saye experimented with the wet collodion process, resulting in the distinctive and atmospheric quality of the images. With most of the works titled in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal, the display explores Saye’s deep engagement with her African roots, her creative exploration of alternative definitions of femininity and her enduring artistic legacy.

Saye and her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, were tragically killed in the Grenfell fire of 2017. The fire destroyed most of Saye’s original artworks, including many of the tintypes in this series, and a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in them. The silkscreen prints on display at the British Library were created from scans of Saye’s tintypes and are on loan from The Estate of Khadija Saye.

Dr Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, African Collections at the British Library, said:

‘It is a privilege to display Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe at the British Library for everyone to visit. The originality, complexity and profundity of Khadija Saye’s self-portraits, and how intricately they link to her own experiences and to Gambian tradition and culture, is truly impressive. The fact that she was on the verge of achieving so much intensifies the tragedy of her passing. I am grateful that the Library can commemorate her life and legacy in this display.’

Kadija (George) Sesay, writer, literary activist and external curator, said:

‘The more research that we did on Khadija Saye, the more impressed I became. She took on challenges which show she was owning herself as an artist, a woman and an African; a wonderfully warm human. She wanted to be an inspiration, and she is.’

Khadija Saye’s tintype self–portrait Peitaw, which was displayed in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 where Saye was the youngest exhibitor, is currently on display in Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights.

The British Library’s galleries, including Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word and The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery, reopen to pre-booked visitors today. The British Library’s Reading Rooms, Reader Registration and public desks in St Pancras and the Reading Room in Boston Spa will reopen from Tuesday 8 December.

For media enquiries, please contact the British Library Press Office: Alice Carter, Media Manager, / 07919 211 789


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Notes to Editors

Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe (3 December 2020 – 2 May 2021) is a free display but tickets must be booked in advance through the Library’s website at or Box Office on +44 (0)1937 546546.

Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights is open until 21 February 2021. The exhibition is generously supported by Joanna and Graham Barker.


For more information:

Alice Carter
The British Library

Evenings and weekends:
+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

Press Office contacts

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