The V&A Explores Pakistan's Independence With Artist Osman Yousefzada

by Joshua Graham on 12 August 2022

In his first major solo exhibition in London, What is Seen and What Is Not, the artist explores themes of movement and migration with three large scale installations.

In his first major solo exhibition in London, What is Seen and What Is Not, the artist explores themes of movement and migration with three large scale installations.

Upon entering The Victoria & Albert Museum – just behind the famed Rotunda Chandelier – you’re greeted by a triptych of tapestries as part of What is Seen and What is Not, by interdisciplinary artist Osman Yousefzada. Embroidered on each of the sizeable works are figures inspired by the Falnama, a book of omens used by fortune tellers in Iran, India, and the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century. ‘They’re kind of like a set of tarot cards, used as a way to tell people’s destiny’, the artist explains. The three-piece set is just the first of three installations that Yousefzada has created for the V&A to mark the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence. ‘I thought it was a really nice way to open up this series of interventions, because when you migrate you don’t really know what’s going to happen.’

What is Seen and What is Not, Osman Yousefzada

On the stroke of midnight on 15 August, 1947 after two centuries of British colonial rule Pakistan and India were granted independence, but the road forward wasn’t without challenges. The partition between the two nations was based primarily on religious differences with Pakistan being primarily Muslim, while India was governed by Sikhs and Hindus. Inter-communal violence between the groups resulted in millions becoming refugees in what would be the largest population movement in history.

Fast forward over seven decades and this tumultuous history is the starting point for Yousefzada’s first major solo exhibition in London. Commissioned by the British Council in partnership with the V&A and the Pakistan High Commission, the works by the Birmingham-born artist explore themes of displacement, migration, and movement. For the British-Pakistani creative providing a platform for marginalised voices to share experiences and start conversations has been at the core of all his creative endeavours. Last year the designer unveiled his A/W 21 collection with a short film co-directed with artist Zoe Marsden, starring trans activist and dancer Sakeema Peng Crook.

What is Seen and What is Not, Osman Yousefzada

Placed at the centre of the colonial institution Yousefzada hopes to not only position Pakistan’s culture and history among the museum’s collection, but also reclaim a history unknown to much of the population. ‘They’re defiant figures, especially taking place in an institution with such a colonial heritage, and putting them here claims our history and our space’, the artist explains. The first of a tripartite of site-specific works, each of the installations grapples with themes rooted in colonial history.

The second installation sits adjacent to the museum’s sculpture gallery as a way to frame Pakistan’s rich history of craftsmanship alongside Eurocentric art. The towering wooden structure was made to evoke makeshift shrines one would find around South Asian territories, while also harkening to the domestic space of migrants. On the shelves of the structure are textile wrapped objects and ceramic sculptures that allude to the way Yousefzada’s mother would package items around the house, while also reflecting upon how displaced people travel with their possessions. ‘I’m really interested in domesticity because I think home is where you can dream. It’s a safe space.’ he explains.

What is Seen and What is Not, Osman Yousefzada

The series of installations culminates in the museum’s John Madejski Garden that transforms into a space for communal contemplation. A collection of colourful charpai and mora stools were handmade using different weaving techniques with textiles sourced from Pakistan. Made to be used by the institute's visitors, people are welcome to move the seats around the space while reflecting on ideas of displacement. At the centre of the garden is a wooden boat and textile flag inspired by the vessels scattered around the mangroves of coastal Pakistan. Symbolising the water-dependent communities, the artist hopes to further highlight the diversity of the nation.

What is Seen and What is Not, Osman Yousefzada

On the especially sunny afternoon Yousefzada shows me around, the space is flooded with families exploring the beloved museum. Whether or not they understand the work, visitors freely engage with the mora stools, placing them around the gardens as they enjoy the weather with friends and family. In the central fountain children are splashing to keep cool and proceed to leave their wet clothing on Yousefzada's boat to dry. While the artist didn’t intend for the work to become a washing line for children escaping the summer heat, this newfound use further highlights the communal nature at the core of the series. 'There is always this idea of survival and competition. People will take over space and pit communities one against another. My conversation is really about coming together, hope, and healing.’ says Yousefzada.

What is Seen and What Is Not is on now until 25 September at The V&A.


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