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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Khadija Saye, Again

This young woman keeps popping up with people doing vigils and remembering her in this way and that, so she remains in my consciousness. I went and looked at the tintypes that were her last project before she was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire.

With the ideas of Orientalism fresh in my mind, I took a slightly different perspective on these pictures, which you can review yourself over here.

Edward Said gives us this idea, echoed widely and now essentially standard thinking, that the people best able to tell us about anything that is different from our own experience are those people who have lived that life. In this model, Khadija Saye is the perfect spokesperson for the immigrant Gambian community. Born in London of a Gambian-born mother, she has lived exactly the life that informs the tintypes that have been so breathlessly praised.

The point of this way of thinking is that when the wrong people speak on behalf of others, they get it wrong. Specifically in the case of Africa, white people are prone to cast the continent as a dark and mysterious place, beyond normal human comprehension, filled with savagery and war. Or, you know, something like that. Which white people most certainly do. There is a practically unbroken history of this, while I do not pretend to know Africa even slightly, I do know that this picture of the continent cannot be anything like complete or usefully similar to "accurate." While I suppose that all these things occur here and there, Africa is a big place, and I dare say that quite a lot other happens there.

So what's going on with these bloody tintypes?

My first thought upon looking at them, I will admit, is "this is staged bullshit, she's just making up mysterious-looking nonsense" which is, of course, wildly uncharitable of me. There's no evidence that these pictures are anything other than what she describes them as, as we should accept her statement as entirely factual.

Dwelling: in this space we breathe is a series of wet plate collodion tintypes that explores the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices and the deep rooted urge to find solace within a higher power.

According to the official model, Saye is properly empowered to speak to us, to characterize these things for us. But what has she done? This work is not revealing, it is not communicative. It is a view through a tiny pinhole, which serves almost exclusively to emphasize the wall between us (Europeans, Americans) and the African Immigrant Experience.

I cannot speak to the actual motivations of the artists, but the use of the tintype seems to support an other-worldliness. The lack of explanation, the murkiness of the pictures themselves, creates a complete opacity. These are not even things one can google up, the religious practices of Gambia are in broad strokes Sunni Muslim, but we don't even know if Saye's pictures are the Gambian Immigrant variant of the islamic rituals, or if they're based in one of the minority religious groups in Gambia. The rituals we are looking at are not even the Gambian variant which we might have a hope of discovering, but are the migrated versions of them.

In short, the source material is something we're extremely unlikely, as people outside Saye's religious community, to be able to make sense of without specific help from someone like Saye. Her pictures could hardly be better designed to support and enhance this opacity, this complete mysteriousness.

I think a strong argument could be made that, deliberate or not, there pictures support a distinctly unhealthy narrative, one of a mysterious and unknowable continent, a community beyond our understanding. An unhealthy narrative that Said would remind us is designed to support an idea of Africa as a continent we can legitimately colonize, dominate, exploit. One can contest the thesis the the design is deliberate, but the result seems to be unquestionable. The fact that we now do our colonizing through charitable aid organizations and whatnot doesn't really change that picture much.

I think then that a further argument could be made that it is not at all surprising that the Euro Art community fell over themselves to laud these pictures, but ignored the rather more accessible work that preceded it.

These pictures for instance are recognizable as islamic prayer rituals, which a roughly judeo-christian person like me can grasp in relationship to our own prayer rituals. The colors of the people and the fabrics tell us that this is something not quite the same as the islamic prayers we have perhaps seen from the Arab nations, but we can follow the breadcrumbs and make some sense of it. We have a path that leads us into the work. We gain a little insight into the Gambian Immigrant Religious practices because we have that path into this new place. Yes, it's superfical "like that Arab business, only more colorful" is pretty lame, but it's something. It's a start.

The tintypes seem to deliberately deny us any path of access.


  1. I look forward to the rise of Rwanda to dispel all the nonsense people spout about Africa.

    It'll be really interesting to see how people view today's geographic perspectives in two centuries time. Just like how people today (especially wastes) view shogunate Japan as this utopia of duty and resilience with an intelligent, capable people living in harmony with each other. Not the undeveloped savage backwater ravaged by constant wars, revolt and famines that it actually was.