How Osman Yousefzada is using art to heal the divisions caused by Partition

The fashion designer and artist describes his V&A exhibition as a 'conversation on identity and migration'

For What Is Seen and What Is Not at the V&A, designer and artist Osman Yousefzada explored the idea of 'otherness'. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum
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“Look around — it’s all very white middle-class,” says Osman Yousefzada, pointing to visitors at London's Victoria & Albert museum on a recent Friday afternoon.

“My work is a conversation on identity and migration. You don’t often get the opportunity to put that at the heart of the V&A.”

Yousefzada, an artist and fashion designer who was brought up in a Pakistani family in Birmingham, is exhibiting his work in the museum’s central public spaces in honour of the 75th anniversary of the Partition.

His goal, he says, is to bring the "empathy of otherness" into a museum that has shown few British Asian artists, let alone major commissions such as his three-part What is Seen and What is Not.

The project starts as a triptych of tapestries hanging in the museum’s main entrance.

A dark silhouetted figure poses against brightly printed and embroidered textiles, as if enacting a mythic sequence whose meaning is unknown to the viewer.

In the museum’s internal garden, with its ring of deep-pink hydrangeas and splashing pool full of small children, the artist has created a boat out of dark reclaimed doors and a series of low woven benches, reminiscent of charpais, or traditional South Asian seating.

Osman Yousefzada shows three tapestries that he made in a factory in Karachi. Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum

The most poignant work is also the most deliberately cryptic: in a stairwell off to the side of the museum’s hall of marble sculptures, Yousefzada has erected a scaffolding, on which rests a collection of apparently shrouded objects, rendered in glass.

The installation is inspired by his mother, who would wrap all her belongings in plastic bags, as if ready to take up and leave again.

“This is the story of otherness,” says the artist, who now lives in London. “There are always these conversations, that you're not from [the UK], and you're not from [Pakistan].

"It’s sort of a hovering between very different worlds. And when I've gone back [to Pakistan] it just reinforces that rootlessness.

"But I like that because that’s my methodology, of rootlessness. It allows me to observe and be creative, because you observe difference. You have the empathy of difference.”

Yousefzada's father and mother emigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s and '70s, raising their family in the midlands city of Birmingham, with its sizeable British-Asian population.

His career has taken him far from that community. As well as being an artist, he is a well-known fashion designer.

Yousefzada's eponymous label has been worn by Beyonce and Lady Gaga, and is frequently featured in titles such as Vogue and Grazia.

But he is also doing a PhD at the Royal College of Art in the experience of migration, and had a well-received show at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in 2018.

As with his V&A commission, which zig-zags from the mythic evocations of the tapestries to the personal resonances of the trompe-l'oeil wrapped objects, Yousefzada has become adept at balancing "otherness" and the nuance of lived experience.

Often, this means he addresses a factor that is frequently omitted from art-world discussions around identity: class.

“The migrant concept is quite universal, but when you bring in class, it becomes a different conversation,” he says.

“The migrant is actually the elite in Pakistan, who want to send their children to another university, who can go and hang out in Paris, London, or LA in the summer.

"When you start putting in class in those conversations, then you have a different kettle of fish altogether. Then you have the racialised conversation.

"Because my parents came in, my dad came here as racialised labour. He came to do work in a factory that no one else was willing to do.”

Osman Yousefzada in the workshop in Karachi where he produced the tapestries for the V&A. Photo: Osman Yousefzada

At the V&A, the textile works, with their leaping figures, signal the immigrant experience broadly conceived: the history of the textile trade; their imperialist origins and the ongoing colonialism of sweatshop labour; and the bright patterns typically associated with South Asian dress.

He made the tapestries in a factory in Karachi that typically provides embroidery for wedding dresses – a kind of contemporary craftsmanship that can be seen in swirls of thread that ensnare and enchain the figures.

The attention to detail carries over into the boat and charpais installations, made from richly carved, ornate doors.

Salvaged from the era of the British Raj, the doors speak of artisanal labour and high-quality material – the kind of design work that reveals the wealth of Britain in the 1930s, and its subsequent decline.

For Yousefzada, they also tell the history of British colonialism, which he here subverts.

“In a classist, racially segregated colonial country, these doors barred many people from kind of coming in,” he says.

“So what I've done is, I've actually strapped them on to another frame, in which they become the charpais. They move from vertical to horizontal.”

In the storeys of ostensibly wrapped sculptures, tucked away in one of the grand staircases, the items that are apparently hidden are unknown.

There is a temperature change here in the commission, and though this might be the least spectacular element of the work, it is its sharpest: a gesture of self-effacement planted in a context of display.

Hiding in plain sight is another way to describe the immigrant experience, ignored by dominant forms and institutions of culture — including, until quite recently, the V&A.

Osman Yousefzada created glass artworks to look like objects that have been wrapped in plastic bags. Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum

Many of the artefacts in the museum, Yousefzada quietly reminds us, also came on their own journey of forced migration to the UK.

Here, he adds to the collection the objects that his mother compulsively kept wrapped — a symbolic move for these pieces, from Birmingham to the V&A, and a memorial to an immigrant experience of hardship and loss.

“You come from a place of very little and come into a first world where goods can be found aplenty for you,’ he says.

Yousefzada says that there is often substantial difference between women's and men's experience of migration.

For people like his mother, he says: “There’s an element of restraint, where you don't necessarily enjoy things, or you're looking at another world and another life.

"It’s a life that’s always arriving — and never unpacking."

Updated: August 05, 2022, 6:02 PM