Intervention! “This is how they (the works of art) are described by the Victoria & Albert Museum, as they take up space in existing gallery spaces. Therefore, striking up a conversation with the objects around them “, explains Osman Yousefzada, an interdisciplinary British-Pakistani artist. , based in Birmingham. Yousefzada debuts with three “interventions” that are strongly at the heart of this 18e century colonial foundation which has featured very few British Asian artists so far. This important commission of the British Council entitled What is seen and what is not seen, questions and explores themes of displacement, movement and migration through the lens of a British diaspora artist. Decoding the title of the exhibition, the artist shares: “The idea behind the title was to open a conversation in an institutional setting, about the processes of collecting and how people are allowed to occupy a particular space. .It denotes stories and themes of belonging, identity, class and the role of the artist in a larger context.” Firmly rooted in the history of his ancestral land, Yousefzada tries to organize this exhibition in honor of the 75e anniversary.
The very first encounter with this series of spatial interventions takes place in the foyer of the Duomo gallery, dominated by a figure of Jesus. Visitors are greeted by three hand-woven tapestries in distinct colors. The banner depicts eerily mysterious yet powerful moving talismanic figures embellished with intricate thread work and metallic beads. Powerful imagery directly references the Falnama. This “book of omens” is a beautifully illustrated tool used by fortune tellers in the 16e and 17e centuries. They are portals and talismans of migration. “Tapestries are an extension of my printmaking practice,” shares the artist, who is also a well-known fashion designer. “Defections of ghouls and omens – rather than paintings of idyllic Mughal miniature landscapes – open doors to different stories and ways of thinking,” Yousefzada adds.
Reflecting on 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 of Mohenjo-daro. Linking the same to the idea of displacement, he says, “they conjure up images of the Indus Valley Civilization – Priest King and Dancing Girl. The two divisive figures who were split in 1947 – Priest King going to Pakistan and Dancing Girl to India”.
Starting from this idea of displacement, visitors are then transported to the visual representation of Yousefzada’s migration. A simple wooden scaffold held together with rope houses of various shapes potlis or wrapped objects molded in cloth, clay, and glass. titled as Response 2, this series of wrapped objects takes the familiar forms of everyday objects such as jars, boxes and containers. The installation invites viewers to contemplate the very idea of precious possessions of a simple migrant, who may have fallen victim to a drastic socio-political or economic scenario.
Revisiting a personal anecdote with nostalgia, the visual artist shares: “My mother packed everything in a bag and a knot. Casting these mass-produced or hand-embroidered objects transmutes them from household objects into sculptures. Additionally, having a layer of migration and movement, they also spark conversations about female agency within a male-dominated power system. The nodes and the layers become the signature and the locks of the identity. These familiar objects give voice to many unknown or hidden stories of these migrant women!
The last “Intervention” is staged in the John Madejeski garden, which is transformed into a common space for introspection and contemplation. The garden installation includes a series of charpais or day beds and Morah or low stools made in Karachi, Pakistan this year. The dramatic suspension of this hand-woven furniture reflects a strong element of South Asian colonial history. Osman shares, “He (charpe) was a democratic item, and now you see flood victims in Pakistan wearing them on their heads. These mutable objects are essential to how we occupy space. I remember growing up visiting Pakistan as a child, I always had to offer the chef of the charpe, the densest part, to an elder. These objects move around us in our environments and have their own stories and provide a sense of community.
An interesting addition to the classic charpe was the parallel attachment of the salvaged ornate doors. This consciously portrayed visual vocabulary decodes a pretty strong message. “I took doors from the colonial era, the British Raj of the 1930s, and changed their axis. What once functioned as gates forbidding people to discriminate against their class, race and privilege, has now become a platform for people to sit on,” he adds.
The exhibition presents Yousefzada’s unique and very personal perspective on migration, displacement and movement. The body of work speaks of a community coming together, acknowledging tangled pasts but looking forward to a hopeful future. The artist’s narrative comes full circle as he reflects on colonial stories at the heart of an English settlement built at a time when present-day Pakistan was still a colony under the British Raj. Yousefzada ends by saying, “I think you have to be inside the institutions to change the narratives. This is where the story is collected! You just need to change the type of story and narrative that is included.