If you design a jumpsuit for Beyoncé, then you may forever be defined as the man who designed a jumpsuit for Beyoncé. That’s certainly true in the case of the British artist Osman Yousefzada. He started out as a fashion designer, and in 2013 the singer wore his black and white crepe creation to the Grammys. Since then, though, he has published a cultural magazine, had an art installation on the island of Stromboli, wrapped the Selfridges store in Birmingham with 9,000 sq metres of printed canvas and is halfway through a PhD at the Royal College of Art. In January, his memoir came out, and from September he takes up a three-year fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge. I hope Beyoncé’s keeping up.
Last week, the tireless Yousefzada, who describes himself as an interdisciplinary artist, had just finished installing several pieces of work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an institution built in no small part on Britain’s colonial heritage; his art weaves questions about the migrant reality that such colonialism has created. (Yousefzada’s work was commissioned to respond to the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, formed from the upheaval of Partition from India.)
In the foyer, a figure of Jesus in George Gilbert Scott’s high-Victorian screen for Hereford cathedral looks down upon three textile banners painted, printed and appliquéd with leaping, looming figures — powerful and talismanic. They are in part derived from the Falnama, a book of omens, once used by Indian and Ottoman fortune-tellers, in part from the agitating and defiant presence of displaced peoples. “I’m putting my history in the foyer for everyone to see,” he says as we walk through it.
In the Madejski Garden at the centre of the museum, Queen Victoria, seen on high in a handsome black and gold mosaic frieze, gazes over an arrangement of daybeds, benches and stools, made this year in Karachi, Pakistan. The daybeds, or charpoy, have fabric woven from Pakistan’s garment-factory waste, twined into yarn; the stools are painted in the vibrant blues and greens used in the villages where his parents were born; the benches are made from wooden doors taken from 1930s colonial buildings. “When they were vertical, they barred access to people like me,” says Yousefzada of the doors. Now horizontal, they are in the service of anyone who fancies a sit-down instead.
Yousefzada was born in Birmingham in 1977 to a father who arrived in the UK in the early 1960s and a mother who came in the 1970s, both from the Pashto-speaking frontier country around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Poor and illiterate, they brought up five children in the inner-city area of Balsall Heath. His mother — confined to the back of the house, making clothes, cooking the food, as he details in his book — was never to be seen by any man outside the family. Aged 18, a hard-working, mosque-going “good immigrant” (his words), he started a degree in anthropology at Soas in London.
Emerging from this closed community into a hall of residence, Yousefzada discovered that London had other things to offer, including nightclubs. He switched to Central Saint Martins to study fashion and by 2008 had set up his own label. “I think fashion was the easiest way to transition into the creative world,” he says. “I needed to get away from one environment and make 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 that? But I do come from people who make things. My dad was a carpenter. My mother was a really talented seamstress.”
By 2018, he had shifted his emphasis from fashion, staging an exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery about the immigrant experience. Among the exhibits was a facsimile of his mother’s bedroom, with a floor mat and the flimsy postwar furniture that had a place in many migrant homes. “I took her to the show,” he says, “but I couldn’t get her to understand what a gallery was. She kept asking, ‘Who sleeps there?’” His practice-based PhD is also concerned with reimagining immigrant spaces.
In his autobiography, The Go-Between, Yousefzada is detailed about his upbringing: the poverty; the increasing adherence to more conservative Islam among a community becoming isolated by unemployment; his sisters’ removal from any outside life as early as 10 years old; his father’s violence. “I especially wanted to expose the unheard voices of the women I lived with,” he says. “It’s an undocumented community. These aren’t the people who came to work for the NHS or came with business degrees that weren’t valid in this country and had to be taxi drivers. They came from the most rural of villages, with a scrap of paper with an address on it that they couldn’t even read.”
Relationships with his family — including his brother, a successful entrepreneur (“I lost the Asian wealth-accumulating gene completely,” says Osman) — have been rather cool since the book came out in January. But it is the loss of his mother, who died shortly before its publication, that he feels most keenly, and he has dedicated a large artwork to her at the V&A, concealed in a corner at the far end of the ground-floor sculpture gallery.
A tower of shelves made from wooden struts, the black and red strips of fabric tied around its joins suggest it is a shrine. Yousefzada says it’s about “migration, female agency and consumption”. The shelves are filled with ceramic and glass casts of the bundles in which his mother kept all her possessions. “We found them when she died — all her things knotted into various plastic bags. Of course, that’s about migration, her fear of being sent back. But also it was her way to contain her life, to define her own self while living in shared spaces. It gave her agency.”
For the opening night of his V&A exhibition, Yousefzada had commissioned a dance performance from the choreographer Dickson Mbi — “like a Sufi poem, or the dances we do around shrines,” says Yousefzada — and a bhangra DJ to pump up the museum’s foyer. More than a thousand young Londoners from the south Asian diaspora crowded into the museum. A banner of brilliantly embroidered paisley — the textile pattern of ancient Indo-Iranian origin so utterly co-opted by the British — fluttered by the lake in the Madejski courtyard. It signalled a glittering welcome.
To September 25, vam.ac.uk