(JollofNews) – I first met Khadija Saye at Peer in Hoxton, east London, where we were both gallery assistants. I remember being incredibly nervous on my first day, because I’d never worked at a place like that, but within minutes of being with Khadija, her bright smile and soft chuckle took any fear away. I can still see and hear that laugh and it will always bring me a sense of calm and warmth.
We instantly developed a deep friendship both at work and outside. I felt as if I’d met a kindred spirit; passionate and open to discussing anything and everything, so kind, but with a sharp sense of humour that she used to challenge people in her own quiet way.
We would endlessly debate our position as members of ethnic minorities working in the arts, and whether we were somehow “playing” the system by using our heritage as a way in. But then we would argue that we needed help starting out in a relentless industry that lacked diversity, and Peer and Creative Access (the scheme that placed us) gave us that space more than anywhere else.
We both grew up in very small flats with strong mothers, and we’d joke about how as children we were quite shy about inviting friends over, not only because of the size of our homes but because they were filled with foreign objects that our friends would ogle at. However, our mothers also brought us up to be proud of where we are from, and embrace the differences we contain.
We laughed recently, too, about our respective families back in Gambia (for Khadija) and Iran (for me) thinking of us as shy young “English” girls because we lack confidence in speaking our mother tongues (Wollof and Farsi) so sometimes end up not talking at all. Ironically, they’d forget we still understood everything being said around us and listening quietly could feel like a game. You won if you caught them saying something disparaging about you – cruel, but funny.
Much of Khadija’s heritage is reflected in her most recent artworks. Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe is now showing at the Venice Biennale, and her research work for this project made such an impression on me. It includes subtle, poignant photographs of her home that I was excited to see and instantly related to – such as an image of a bone china milkmaid ornament next to a decorative Islamic prayer panel. I planned to invite her over to my home so she could see the Iranian version of her English-foreign objects.
Khadija spoke so openly about her experience at Venice; how during the opening night she had to go and sit out back at times to get away from the hustle because it was all too dazzling and overwhelming, but also how excited she was that one of her idols, artist Lorna Simpson, had come to admire her work. She was so gracious about being there, and so excited about the opportunities it would open up for her career in the art world.
My most poignant memory of Khadija is a recent one. We were at a pub after work when a lady who had been drinking nearby stopped to speak to us. “I wasn’t really listening to what you were talking about, but I just wanted to say what a lovely way you have of speaking to each other; how wonderful your friendship seems,” she told us. Khadija’s broad smile and soft chuckle rang out again as we said a unanimous thank you, then she began laughing all over again. That moment will always stay with me.