An intervention into Pakistan's 75th independence by Osman Yousefzada

The artist reflects on Pakistan’s colonial histories at the Victoria & Albert Museum as he explores the themes of migration, displacement and movement via a British diasporic lens.

by Urvi KothariPublished on : Sep 24, 2022

Intervention! "That is how they (the artworks) are described by the Victoria & Albert Museum, as they take up space in existing gallery spaces. Hence, starting a conversation with the objects around them," says Osman Yousefzada, a British-Pakistani interdisciplinary artist, based out of Birmingham. Yousefzada debuts with three 'interventions' that strongly stand within the heart of this 18th century colonial foundation that has showcased very few British Asian artists so far. This major commission by the British Council titled What Is Seen And What Is Not, questions and explores themes of displacement, movement and migration through the lens of a British diasporic artist. Decoding the exhibition title, the artist shares, "The idea behind the title was to open up a conversation in an institutional setting, of the processes of collecting, and how people are allowed to occupy a particular space. It denotes histories and themes of belonging, identity, class and the role of the artist in a broader context." Firmly rooted with the histories of his ancestral land, Yousefzada attempts to curate this exhibition in honour of Pakistan's 75th anniversary.

Artist in Studio Residency in Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi | What Is Seen And What Is Not | Osman Yousefzada | STIRworld
The artist in studio residency in Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi Image: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada

The very first encounter with this series of spatial interventions hangs within the Dome gallery foyer, overlooked by a figure of Jesus. Visitors are greeted by three distinctly colourful hand-woven tapestries. The banner depicts strangely mysterious but powerful talismanic figures in motion embellished with intricate thread work and metallic beads. The powerful imagery draws direct references to the Falnama. This 'book of omens' is a splendidly illustrated tool utilised by fortune tellers in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are portals and talismans of migration. "The tapestries are an extension of my printmaking practice," shares the artist, also a well-known fashion designer. "The defections of ghouls and omens - rather than idyllic Mughal miniature landscape paintings - open doors to different stories and ways of thinking,” adds Yousefzada.

Intervention 1, 2022, Acrylic, collaged and embroidery on canvas tapestries, Osman Yousefzada | What Is Seen And What Is Not | Osman Yousefzada | STIRworld
Intervention 1 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, acrylic, collaged and embroidery on canvas tapestries, Osman Yousefzada Image: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada, and Victoria and Albert Museum

Reflecting on the South Asian cultural roots, the artist revisits a personal anecdote. While he "took these figures to Pakistan", some locals pointed out that they resembled the terracotta figures from the Mohenjo-daro. Connecting the same to the idea of displacement, he says, "they evoke images of the Indus Valley Civilisation - Priest King and Dancing Girl. The two divisive figures that were partitioned in 1947 - Priest King going to Pakistan and Dancing Girl to India.”

Intervention 2 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, Wrapped Objects Ceramic, Glass, Fabric & Wood, Osman Yousefzada | What Is Seen And What Is Not | Osman Yousefzada | STIRworld
Intervention 2 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, wrapped objects ceramic, glass, fabric and wood, Osman Yousefzada Image: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada, and Victoria and Albert Museum

Departing from this idea of displacement, visitors are then transported to Yousefzada’s visual depiction of migration. A simple wooden scaffolding held together with rope houses various shaped potlis or wrapped objects casted in cloth, clay, and glass. Titled as Intervention 2, this series of shrouded objects familiarly take shapes of everyday objects such as pots, boxes, and vessels. The installation invites viewers to contemplate on the very idea of cherished possessions of a simple migrant, who may have been a victim to a drastic socio-political or economic scenario.

Intervention 2 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, Wrapped Objects Ceramic, Glass, Fabric & Wood, Osman
Intervention 2 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, wrapped objects ceramic, glass, fabric and wood, Osman Yousefzada Image: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada, and Victoria and Albert Museum

Nostalgically revisiting a personal anecdote, the visual artist shares, "My mother would wrap everything up in a bag and a knot. Casting these mass produced or hand embroidered objects, transmutes them from domestic objects into sculptural. In addition, having a layer of migration and movement, they also spark up conversations of female agency within a predominate masculine system of power. The knots and layers become the signature and locks of identity." These familiar objects lend voice to many unfamiliar or hidden stories of such female migrants!

Intervention 3 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, Peerhi Stool Structure, Wood and Cotton, Osman Yousefzada | What Is Seen And What Is Not | Osman Yousefzada | STIRworld
Osman Yousefzada, structure, wood and cotton Image: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada, and Victoria and Albert Museum

The final 'Intervention' is staged within John Madejeski Garden, as it transforms into a communal space of introspection and contemplation. The garden installation encapsulates a series of charpais or day-beds and morah or low sitting stools made in Karachi, Pakistan this year. The dramatic suspension of these hand-woven furniture reflects a strong element of South Asian colonial history. Osman shares, “It (charpai) was a democratic object, and now you see victims of the floods in Pakistan carrying them on their heads. These mutable objects are vital to the way we occupy space. I remember growing up when visiting Pakistan as a child, I was always to offer the head of the charpai, the most densely woven part, to an elder. These objects move around us in our environments and have their own stories and offer a sense of community.”

Performance & Intervention 3 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, Wood and Textile twine, Osman Yousefzada | What Is Seen And What Is Not | Osman Yousefzada | STIRworld
Performance & Intervention 3 - What Is Seen And What Is Not, 2022, wood and textile twine, Osman Yousefzada Image: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada, and Victoria and Albert Museum

An interesting addition to the conventional charpai was the parallel attachment of the reclaimed ornate doors. This consciously depicted visual vocabulary decodes a rather strong message. “I salvaged doors from the colonial era, 30s British Raj, and changed their axis. What once functioned as gates barring people on discrimination of their class, race and privilege, has now become a platform for people to sit on,” he adds.

The exhibition presents Yousefzada's unique and highly personal perspective on migration, displacement and movement. The body of works are about the coming together of a community, acknowledging the entangled pasts but looking forward to hopeful futures. The artist's narrative comes full circle as he reflects on colonial histories within the heart of an English premises built in an era when the now-Pakistan was still a colony under British Raj. Yousefzada ends by saying, "I think you have to be inside institutions to change narratives. It is where history is collected! You just have to change the type of history and narrative that is included.”

What Is Seen And What Is Not, Osman Yousefzada Image: Courtesy of Royal College of Art

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