In February, after winning the Best British Solo Artist and Best Album categories at the Brit Awards, the grime and hip-hop artist Stormzy performed a closing freestyle rap. Topless beneath a shaft of water, he seethed: ‘Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell? / What? You thought we just forgot about Grenfell?’ The musician’s rage has been shared by many since 14 June 2017, when an inferno that engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower public housing block in North Kensington, London, left 72 people dead. The majority of those who perished were people of colour and 80 percent of residents in the tower were Muslims. The fire began in a faulty refrigerator in a fourth-floor flat and spread rapidly due to the low-cost flammable cladding that was installed as part of a recent GB£9 million refurbishment. Many survivors have still not been rehoused. A government enquiry into the tragedy is underway to establish what happened and why.
In the days that followed the catastrophe, the official response was chaotic; when UK Prime Minister Theresa May visited the site, she didn’t meet victims due to ‘security concerns’. By contrast, the local community stepped into the vacuum. Young musicians organized a fundraiser in a park; a club owner opened up his venue to take in donations; the singer Adele, wearing a black abaya, comforted survivors; and the rapper AJ Tracey, who grew up in the area, publicly criticized the government’s failures. The inevitable popstar charity single was released and Sotheby’s held an auction of works donated by artists that raised nearly GB£2 million. Steve McQueen, who grew up nearby, shot the film Grenfell Tower ‘in support of the community’. Forensic Architecture created a ‘media archive and spatial database’ of the fire. The award-winning musician Akala was interviewed in front of the smouldering tower: people died in Grenfell, he said, ‘because they were poor’ and Lowkey, the hip hop artist who lives next to Grenfell Tower made a powerful music video ft. Mai Khalil, ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’.
One year on, it’s clear that Londoners will live in the shadow of Grenfell for a long time to come: it has become a barometer of the rotten state of UK politics. The residents of this 1970s brutalist tower block lived in close proximity to some of the world’s most important cultural institutions, including the Design Museum, the Saatchi Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum – a mile apart, but worlds removed. Many of them worked as night cleaners in museums, as security guards or as Uber drivers: it took an inferno for us to see them.
Some of those who died include Fathia Ahmed, known as ‘big sister’ by members of the Sudanese community. She lived on the 23rd floor with her daughter, Isra Ibrahim, who died with her, alongside Rania Ibrahim and her two young daughters, Hania and Fethia Hassan. Fathia’s son, Abufars Ibrahim, was visiting his mother at the time to break iftari, an evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset. As the flames rose up the building, Abufars headed to the top of the tower and leapt to his death.
One of their neighbours was making her mark with her art. Khadija Saye, a 24-year-old artist, lived with her mother, Mary Mendy, on the 20th floor. At the time of her death, Saye’s work was on view in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. In her short life she had produced some remarkable art, including her series ‘Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe’ (2017), which drew on her Gambian roots. Some of her work was displayed at Tate Britain after the disaster. In January, I visited Gambia. As I walked through the largest market in the country, I recognized the traditions that inspired Saye. It struck me again how cruel it was that she died before she could enjoy the fruits of her labour, how we will never have the privilege of seeing her work grow and how unjust it is that she lost her life in such a brutal way in the richest borough in one of the richest cities in the world. Yet, her legacy will endure. The Khadija Saye Memorial Fund has been established by artists Nicola Green and Dave Lewis in tandem with the director of PEER, Ingrid Swenson, to help young artists like Saye in realizing their potential, while the charity Creative Access has set up the Khadija Saye Internship Fund to support young people of colour with an interest in the visual arts.
Grenfell Tower has exposed the Dickensian fissures in London, where poverty and rampant ‘development’ co-exist uneasily. The art world has a role in this: developers have used the image of the city as a centre of contemporary art as a proxy to lure wealthy investors. What happened on 14 June last year has shattered a certain perception of London – one rooted in the 2012 Olympics and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony depicting a multicultural Britain at ease with itself. We now know that this story was just that: a fiction we told ourselves in order to avoid addressing the quiet apartheid that divides us.
This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'Out of the Shadows'.
Main image: Justice4Grenfell Campaign, Three Billboards, 2018. Courtesy: Justice4Grenfell Campaign; photograph: Jeff Moore