The momentum for much of Osman Yousefzada’s work comes as a consequence of immigration. As a second-generation immigrant, the British multi-disciplinary artist sees his identity and life choices as having been decided by his parents’ decision to leave Pakistan and make a new life in Birmingham; for this reason, his mother and father become the inspiration for artworks exploring resettlement, restlessness, isolation, integration, and space—space as a measure of one’s place and participation in the world.
In “What is Seen and What is Not,” his current exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (on view through September 25, 2023), Yousefzada, who is also a clothing designer, activist, and writer (his autobiography, The Go-Between, was published earlier this year), presents three bodies of work that respond to the 75th anniversary of Pakistan and draw on his interest in textiles, ceramics, sculpture, and printmaking. None of these works can be easily categorized—he sees his “storytelling” as significantly unsettling for the institution and its audiences—but they encompass the essence, and something of the endeavor, of displaced and moved-on people. A wooden boat appears to have run aground, rooted to the shallow shores of the museum; a tower of shelves supports an array of colorful wrapped bundles that embody the idiosyncrasies of his mother and the absence of his father. Concealment and visibility serve as the foundation of Yousefzada’s work, as he re-forms actions and events from the past to reveal the present and future—righting his parents’ wrongs and writing them back into history, while offering his own difference as deliverance.
Rajesh Punj: Could you tell me about the origins and influences on your work?
Osman Yousefzada: My work is essentially about domestic and female spaces, about how domestic space becomes an invitation and a space of agency, and how a specific space becomes a space for female art-making, homemaking, and women’s work, which has somehow always been measured as craft and a lesser art. My work considers these ideas across textiles, sewing, and pottery. A living space can easily become a communal space. I am interested in a migrant conversation, which is very much like a working-class conversation.
RP: Your work makes specific reference to your mother and her habit of wrapping and concealing her belongings. What are you interested in?
OY: The way that my mother would use space, by not using space. She never hung anything up in her wardrobe, for instance, and left everything in bags or folded and put away in a suitcase—every day that she was here in the U.K. She was quite protective of her own space; there was what I call agency within patriarchy, how you define your borders within that space. My mother didn’t wish for anyone to look through her things, even her clothes. They weren’t open to display, or available to use. So, there is an idea of female and male space, and of my wanting, as a child, to walk and wander through these spaces.
RP: When you talk about your mother and space, I think about the idea of ownership. Did she feel that the house was her home, or did she feel that her life and her belongings were transitory and temporary?
OY: When I was growing up, the conversation was always about whether and when they were going to throw us out; they didn’t have any use for us once the factories had closed down. There were those who said, “They won’t; we are British, we were born here,” but there was a tendency not to bury the dead here and to send their bodies back to Pakistan instead. There was an incredible sense of temporality, yet my mother felt very much rooted here. But then, it is also about how you occupy space, about how you create agency. There was definitely an element of defiance: “I have my passport, they can’t take my passport away from me, I am British.” But how do you occupy space when you come from very little to the first world, and it’s all about consumption? You don’t want to feel like you consume too much, and you have to protect everything you have because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow; the feeling is of always arriving but never really unpacking. It is like a book of the dead that you prepare for another life somehow, to be embalmed.
RP: There is something quite beautiful, and immensely tragic, in the idea of leaving to arrive. And when you arrive, do you surrender yourself to your new destination, or do you remain in a condition of flux? How do you achieve ownership of a space?
OY: It is also about the roots of a space, and about early Victorian houses being built by very patriarchal hands, by male builders: how all of the lines of a building are configured in a room, and how they are not feminine in any way.
RP: It’s a very different typology from the open spaces of India and Pakistan, where lives are lived outside, in courtyards and on rooftops. I wonder how your mother and father made the transition to prescribed English spaces, where you are penned in by the building and closed into a room for much of the time. How did they deal with the weight of their world?
OY: That relates to the architecture, but there was also another transition for those first migrants (those coming to England in the 1950s and into the 1960s), who lived in restrictive spaces, with seven men to a bedroom, before their wives came over. Eventually they would buy a house and think to occupy only one floor in order to rent out the other floors for extra income. So, you become confined to a particular space because of circumstance. In my background, the men are from the outside world, and the women are confined to the four walls of the house; which is another conversation about space.
My PhD is in part about the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who explains that the house is the place where you dream and the place where you find shelter. The women in this situation deal with the domestic and engage in the beautification and the dream of the house as home. Those dreams can be seen as probative, and they can tell the future, because there is a real sense of futurism about female space and domesticity. This is what interests me, and what I hope comes through in the exhibition. When you arrive, you begin with the Falnama fabric works. They started from prints that I was making, but I then translated them into tapestries, and they started becoming very different things. The Falnama is a book of omens, so the pages would be used like tarot cards, intended to predict your future.
These banners depicting leaping and looming figures are a perfect opening, because they offer something completely different to everything else in the museum. As I see it, people who are uprooted from one country and who resettle in another are gambling with their lives, and books of omens and tarot cards epitomize that. You are never sure what your future will hold when you turn a card over. These talismanic omens offer their own uncertainty, but they are also intended to protect you. They are defiant as well, not necessarily indicative of a “good immigrant,” but of an agitator, especially now that history doesn’t want to be forgotten.
I see what we were given by the British in return for what they took from us, for centuries, as a drop in the ocean. They gave the subcontinent bureaucracy and railways, but each year, they took away an incredible amount of wealth in the form of raw materials, products, and labor, which was never invested back. When the East India Company arrived in India, it was the richest country on earth, and when the English left, it was one of the poorest. That transfer of wealth laid the pavements in this country—that this exhibition is housed at the V&A, which is a colonial institution, is very poignant. These works are about expressing and explaining that we are here, that we are aggrieved, and like agitators, here to shake the foundations with this choice of cards. We are all these figures in motion. Then you go into the gallery with the tower, a space of hidden voices—it’s a quite enclosed, darkly lit, transition space, which is quite telling of female agency in many ways.
It was the patriarchs who came forward; they were the trailblazers, and then, when it was safe enough, the women followed, which required that they navigate those same spaces for themselves. We lived in a red-light district when I was growing up. Coming from a very conservative background, we thought that the whole of the outside world was full of prostitutes, and so you can imagine that the women’s lives were very restricted. You are going out from one space (that of your country) to another, and suddenly you have no access to your full self. For my parents, it was about layers of culture that they acquired, from everything that was at home. They came as racialized, cheap labor. They were both illiterate, and when the factories closed down, they were completely redundant; they weren’t able to retrain. They couldn’t read or write in their mother tongue, but they were good at doing the manual work—heavy lifting in the foundries, polishing the cars off the production line. From the 1960s, they stayed until the 1980s, and they had no idea what to do with themselves. For them, it became all about identity and their ability to ask “Who am I, and where am I?”
RP: Being elsewhere and nowhere at the same time, how do you maintain or confirm your identity when you no longer have a social ecosystem around you?
OY: You start to look inwards, you begin to look to religion, which leads to communities.
RP: Because everyone is wanting, desiring the same thing.
OY: The majority of Pakistani immigrants, though not my parents, came from Mirpur, which is where the Mangla dam was built in the early 1960s. That project displaced incredible numbers of people, who came to work in the cotton mills in this country. So, there is that neocolonial event of displacement again, which comes about because of a “white elephant” project to show the world that you are becoming a developing country. You have to harness power and use the wrong kind of technology, which isn’t right for you and has gone on to destroy the ecosystem. There is massive flooding in the region now, with its environmental consequences of predicted peak flows in 2050. So, there are incredible collateral ties with immigration. People leave for a better life, and in turn, everyone is seeking the same kind of contentment or elixir. For this reason, the exhibition had to have a nod to the environment, too.
RP: I’d like to return to the tower shelf that you filled with ceramic and glass casts of the bundles that your mother used to keep her possessions in. I find that practice quite incredible.
OY: I find it beautiful. I created all of the knotted works in different materials. I see those wrapped objects, in which everything appears quite contained in their folds, as marks of identity. I wanted the scaffolding-type structure to appear very transitory. The tying of the cloth at the joints suggests a shrine, transforming the objects into holy offerings to which everything is attached and wrapped. For me, the work appears as a totem shrine to all of the women, like my mother, whose stories are never told. The head of sculpture at the Royal College explained these wrapped works as “anti-Christo.”
RP: The mention of Christo reinforces the domesticity and authenticity of your works. Their scale is private and personal, and that’s to be experienced without the weight of words, almost in the way that your mother and father would have done. I fear everything is all too quickly covered in grand ideas. We are in a moment when size is all.
OY: There is a scale conversation, though, with Infinity Pattern 1 (2021), my public artwork wrapping Selfridges in Birmingham, which is about bringing a migration conversation to the fore in a very different way. It’s about communities that come together; you may come from the wrong side of the tracks, but you are here and want an opportunity, and you don’t define yourself as one thing or another. I am interested in the domestic space—it is about female space, about craft, and about the shapes and patterns that hopefully lure you in. But it is just storytelling at the end of the day. I feel more of a storyteller.
RP: What do you intend by gendering space in this way, and what does it mean for you?
OY: When I grew up, a curtain divided the female space, and the women of the house were kept away from the men, and not to be on display. I see my works as being domestic, but they can become acts of querying, like the work on the Selfridges building and the tarot banners—these intimacies have to come out and be seen. But generally, my work is about the intimate spaces, though sometimes you have had enough, and you kick back and do something kick-ass crazy. For me, it is about how people travel through life, and how life revolves around and is subject to, domestic and working spaces; the works often become reimagined and bigger versions of themselves. And then you have the futurist visions in the big tapestries, which are talismanic because they give power, appearing as amulets enshrined in another world. They become portals that give you some kind of superpower.
I think of the small black boat, outside in the courtyard, which is intended to take you to the other side, from one place to another. There is always the sense that you are going because the house lets you dream, the space allows you to dream, and you can transform that space into bigger spaces in these futuristic surroundings. But everything starts from the domestic space where the wrapped objects have their place and are attached to their concealed dreams—whether they are going to be used on a particular day, if they are going to be given as a gift. When you give a gift, you do so intending to strengthen a relationship and create community cohesion. So, everything is about those acts of humanity within the domestic space.
RP: I want to ask about contentment, and how that might fuel your work. Were your parents happy with their lot, happy to have made this change?
OY: I think the works go beyond that in a sense, they serve as portals to higher states of being, and that can include happiness. Everything I look at is essentially about objects that help you get to the other side, rather than there being any kind of happiness or celebration in the moment.
RP: I see the objects as able to encompass many different emotions and energies—grievances, gratitude, and personal power, all are carried within these containers. It is interesting to think about how the ordinary can transform into the extraordinary, with everything we project onto it. It isn’t that I am just giving you what is contained within the box or wrapping, you receive part of me at that moment, my feelings, my fears, my physical self wanting to make a connection with you.
OY: Yes. There were stories, which I find immensely beautiful, about women coming together and commenting on how they loved someone’s headscarf, and the owner would offer it to the person who gave the compliment. These acts of affection create strong bonds between people, and that act of sharing, because you are displaced, encourages closer relationships, because you will come to rely on that person even more, which leads to community.
RP: I am interested to know if your mother felt that she had arrived.
OY: She preferred it here to being in Pakistan, because it was much more patriarchal there. Here, she could call a doctor and have an independent appointment; there, if you needed anything, you had to rely on the man of the house to take you. She felt she had more freedom here, and she would often say that even if men are made out of shit, that they still have the label of being a man.
RP: Where are you going with your work now?
OY: I feel a great interest in “futurisms,” which is to do with migrant concepts of futurism that go beyond race and culture. We all have these trans-identities, that still have pillars, and this fundamental first need to move from one place to another for economic betterment and a better life, and to create bigger and better versions of ourselves. I think that is where my work is moving, toward how migrants become their own superheroes or shamans. In a way, you are looking back to look to the future. Looking back, you look for something that isn’t necessarily old but that has its own history; then, you have to be able to interact with an audience and to challenge your position at the same time. You are looking back to go forward, and that is where I see my work developing.