Osman Yousefzada’s Powerful New Show Delves Into the Migrant Experience

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Osman Yousefzada – What Is Seen And What Is Not
Osman Yousefzada – What Is Seen And What Is Not© Danish Shalwani at Unikrew Production

“The search for identity is quite important in my work and my narrative because I don’t feel like I belong in many spaces,” says Osman Yousefzada, whose new exhibition at the V&A explores themes of displacement, movement, migration and climate change

Osman Yousefzada has spent the better half of the year visiting Pakistan to work on his latest exhibition at the V&A. Shuttling between Karachi and Lahore, the interdisciplinary artist, designer, and writer has spent hours working alongside local craftsmen, sourcing offcuts from garment factories and overseeing the production of various intricate pieces. 

Yousefzada’s work is underpinned by the belief that the personal is the political and the personal is the national; What is Seen and What is Not is an extension of this ideology. Through three site-specific installations spread across the museum, Yousefzada reflects on the 75th anniversary of Pakistan by exploring themes of migrant identity and the impact colonial expansion has on climate change.

Visitors will first encounter part-printed, part-embroidered and part-painted tapestries featuring talismanic figures reminiscent of The Book of Omens displayed around the museum’s Dome Gallery. These figures subvert the idea of the model minority and the good immigrant; instead, Yousefzada emphasises that immigrants from Pakistan are sons of gods and jinns, that they have tongues and teeth and that they can be defiant. 

Here, speaking in his own words, Yousefzada tells us the story behind What is Seen and What is Not:

The search for identity is quite important in my work and my narrative because I don’t feel like I belong in many spaces. I feel like I’m not Muslim enough, I’m not white enough … I’m not many things enough. When you yourself are a little bit different, you always notice difference. The space between these intersections of identity is where I think really interesting work comes out, and that’s the kind of space that I trample around in. I try to find those little nuances that, when amplified, can build up a whole picture, a whole identity and a whole new kind of universe. With my own practice, it’s really about how I can reimagine and remake migrant spaces through tapestry or printmaking or objects.

“When you start off with the exhibition, you see these defiant, talismanic figures, inspired by the Falnama and The Book of Omens, on tapestries. They evoke a sense of polytheism which may seem provocative, especially for an intervention to do with Pakistan. But I think sometimes, Pakistan doesn’t always remember its own history before 1947. By starting the exhibition off with this narrative, you are in a space that has an infinite and shared culture, which is really important for me because I grew up in a very restrictive culture and, through this work, have searched for an expansive, layered culture.

“The Falnama were these crazy tarot cards that I think of as portals that would project or try to imagine the future. I think there’s a really interesting relationship between that and migration because when you go somewhere, you don’t really know what life is going to be like to some extent, and that rupture is quite interesting. It was only when I took these works to Pakistan to be developed into tapestries that they became linked to the figurines like the priest-king and dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro.

“(The wrapped objects) are a homage to migrant women whose stories have been hidden away. All of these women that I knew when I was growing up, including my mum, created their own spaces through small private acts. My mum used to wrap all of her belongings in kapda (cloth) that looked very much like South-Asian potlis. The small act of her tying a knot became a way of demarcating space. My mom was illiterate, so I see those knots as her signatures and those folds as her marks.

“I think this act stems from this domestic idea of putting stuff away and saving it for another day. These migrant women come from a background of restraint and a time when they had little. They don’t come from conspicuous or surplus consumption like we do today. You’re preserving and collecting stuff as you go, and it becomes the Book of the Dead because somehow you’re always arriving, but you’re never really unpacking.”

Osman Yousefzada – What Is Seen And What Is Not is on show at the V&A in South Kensington until 25 September 2022.