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Artist Osman Yousefzada: “I’m putting my story in the V&A foyer for everyone to see”

If he designs a jumpsuit for Beyoncé, then you could forever be defined as the man who designed a jumpsuit for Beyoncé. This is certainly true in the case of British artist Osman Yousefzada. He started as a stylist and in 2013 the singer wore his creation of him in black and white crepe to the Grammys. Since then, however, he has published a cultural magazine, created an art installation on Stromboli Island, wrapped Birmingham’s Selfridges store in 9,000 square meters of printed canvas, and is halfway through his Ph.D. at the Royal College of Art. His memoir came out in January and from September he takes a three-year scholarship at Jesus College in Cambridge. I hope Beyoncé keeps up.

Last week, the tireless Yousefzada, who describes himself as an interdisciplinary artist, had just finished installing several works at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, an institution built largely on British colonial legacy; his art weaves questions about the migratory reality that this colonialism has created. (Yousefzada’s work was commissioned to respond to the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, formed by the upheaval of the Partition from India.)

In the atrium, a figure of Jesus in George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian screen for Hereford Cathedral looks down on three painted, printed and applied fabric banners with leaping and looming figures: powerful and talismanic. They derive in part from the Falnama, a book of omens once used by Indian and Ottoman fortune-tellers, in part from the agitated and provocative presence of the displaced. “I’m putting my story in the lobby for everyone to see,” he says as we walk along it.

Two people in large red dresses appear to be grappling in front of a Victorian facade
A dance show, created for the opening night of the exhibition, in the Madejski courtyard of the V&A © Peter Kelleher

Three large rectangular banners, one dark blue, one pink, one medium blue, each with black human figures applied

Banners hung in the atrium © Peter Kelleher

A large hollow cube made up of stools stacked on top of each other

Stools painted in the bright blues and greens used in the villages where his parents were born © Tim P Whitby

In the Madejski garden in the center of the museum, Queen Victoria, seen above in a beautiful black and gold mosaic frieze, observes an arrangement of loungers, benches and stools, created this year in Karachi, Pakistan. The sunbeds, or charpoy, they woven from the waste of the Pakistan garment factory, twisted into thread; the stools are painted in the vivid blues and greens used in the villages where her parents were born; the benches are made with wooden doors taken from colonial buildings from the 1930s. “When they were vertical, they blocked access to people like me,” Yousefzada says of the doors. Now horizontal, they are at the service of anyone who wants to sit down.

Yousefzada was born in Birmingham in 1977 to a father who arrived in the UK in the early 1960s and a mother who arrived in the 1970s, both from the Pashto-speaking border country around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Poor and illiterate, they raised five children in the city center of Balsall Heath. Her mother – confined to the back of the house, making clothes, cooking food, as she explains in detail in her book – has never been seen by any man outside the family. At 18, a “good immigrant” (in his own words) hardworking and mosque-goer, he began a degree in anthropology at Soas in London.

Emerging from this gated community in a residence, Yousefzada found that London had other things to offer, including nightlife. He moved to Central Saint Martins to study fashion and in 2008 founded his own label. “I think fashion was the easiest way to get into the creative world,” he says. “I needed to get away from one environment and create a place in another, and dressing up was part of that. I mean, I didn’t even know what art was. So how could I have chosen it? But I come from people who do things. My father was a carpenter. My mother was a very talented seamstress ”.

The artist standing in a shallow pool in a courtyard
The artist in the Madejski courtyard, photographed for the FT by Kalpesh Lathigra

In 2018 he shifted the emphasis away from fashion, setting up an exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham on the immigrant experience. Among her finds was a facsimile of her mother’s bedroom, with a rug and the flimsy postwar furniture that had a place in many migrant homes. “I took her to the exhibition,” she says, “but I couldn’t make her understand what a gallery was. She kept asking herself: ‘Who sleeps there?’ ”Her practice-based PhD is also concerned with reimagining the spaces of immigrants.

In his autobiography, The transition between, Yousefzada describes in detail his upbringing: poverty; growing adherence to more conservative Islam in a community that is isolated by unemployment; the removal of his sisters from any external life already at the age of 10; the violence of his father. “I especially wanted to expose the unheard voices of the women I’ve lived with,” he says. “It’s an undocumented community. These are not the people who came to work for the National Health Service or who had a business degree who were not valid in this country and were supposed to be taxi drivers. They came from the most rural village with a piece of paper with an address they couldn’t even read. ‘

Relationships with his family – including his brother, a successful entrepreneur (“I’ve completely lost the Asian wealth-accumulating gene,” Osman says) – have been pretty interesting since the book came out in January. But it is the loss of her mother, who died shortly before its publication, that she feels most intensely, and he has dedicated a large work of art to her at the V&A, tucked away in a corner at the back of the sculpture gallery on the ground floor.

A tower of corbels made of wooden posts, the black and red strips of fabric tied around its joints suggest that it is a sanctuary. Yousefzada says it is about “migration, women’s agency and consumption”. The shelves are filled with ceramic and glass casts of the bundles in which her mother kept all her belongings. “We found them when she died: all her things tied up in various plastic bags. Obviously it’s about migration, about her fear of being sent back. But she was also her way of containing her life, of defining herself while living in shared spaces. She gave her free will.

Shelves filled with ceramic and glass casts

A tower of shelves filled with ceramic and glass casts © Tim Whitby

Cast that looks like a black garbage bag with objects inside

The casts are made from the bundles in which his mother kept all her belongings © Peter Kelleher

For the opening night of his V&A show, Yousefzada had commissioned a dance show from choreographer Dickson Mbi – “like a Sufi poem, or the dances we do around shrines,” says Yousefzada – and a bhangra DJ to pump up the atrium. of the museum. More than a thousand young Londoners from the South Asian diaspora flocked to the museum. A brilliantly embroidered paisley banner – the textile motif of ancient Indo-Iranian origin so completely co-opted by the British – was waving by the lake in Madejski’s courtyard. He signaled a sparkling welcome.

Until September 25th vam.ac.uk

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