Believing is seeing

September 25, 2022

Osman Yousefzada, a British-Pakistani artist, responds to the history of power and the legacy of acquisition through his work

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he real question - whether wandering as a tourist, or arriving as a settler, or disoriented as diaspora, the real question - is what do you take and how do you transport it. Essential stuff is picked and packed to the brim of cartons, limits of suitcases, space of bags, capacity of rucksacks. Standing next to a carousel at the arrival lounge of an international airport, you scrutinise pieces of luggage, sliding, colliding, rotating on advancing planks and guess what is inside in these precariously stuffed bags.

Whole lives - entire future, calculated present, condensed past – are contained in these boxes, which become self-portraits of the travellers. You are nothing in any case at an immigration counter unless you present your passport, show your visa documents, confirm your hotel bookings and convince the authorities about the departure date – sheets of paper, important, and more credible than a human (tongue). American artist Barbara Kruger translates Descartes’ dictum in her work: I Shop Therefore I Am; but this could be further appropriated with ‘I travel therefore I am’, or ‘I transport…’ or ‘I emigrate ….’.

Before the modern means like air travel and cargo, human beings had used sea and land routes. Journeying on foot, on animals, on boats. Walking from home to a far-off destination, one could only take essentials with one, tied in a small pack, held in hand, or bound to a stick balanced on the shoulder. These ‘weight restrictions’ forced pedestrians to be selective in their belongings/ lives. In rural areas and small towns of Pakistan, packs of these kinds, basically a piece of fabric containing valuable and useful stuff, and secured with knots, are called pand; a word in its literal meaning employing load, gathering, collection. Hence, a hamlet/ village in Punjabi language is pind or pindi (as the city Rawalpindi).

In a sense, museums can also be called pand, since they accumulate prized items, mostly fetched from one location to another. Artefacts, utility objects, religious articles, aesthetic pieces are collected in the display areas, vaults and storage spaces of museums. Like Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which contains works from across the world, particularly objects from former British colonies.

Osman Yousefzada, a British-Pakistani artist, responds to this history of power, the legacy of acquisition and of transporting valuable materials from the Indian soil to the UK, either by colonial connoisseurs or by humble emigrants. In his solo exhibition, What Is Seen and What Is Not, at the Victoria and Albert Museum (July 29 to September 25), he has included an installation – a tall wooden structure, with small hand-tied small sacks (made in glass, ceramics and fabric) placed on various levels/ shelves. That the work is surrounded by marble statues of Greco-Roman style, Judeo-Christian subjects, is a way of reminding/ reinforcing the idea of migration/ displacement. The work can also be viewed as an intervention/ intrusion into the protected sanctuary of art.

Because Yousefzada’s pands (or pandukis) illustrate the lives of travellers, who had to cross oceans – and forsake intimate family and loved ones, these can be read as homage to those unnamed and tames women who had to accompany their husbands to alien environments, with their gatherings, which not only contain items from their abandoned homes, but also its scent/ air.

In a sense, these cloth or plastic holdings are no different from Marcel Duchamp’s work (a French resident of the New York City), called 50 cc of Paris Air. Yousefzada, in his Wrapped Objects creates a mystery; recognising the power of women, who packed them. They alone knew what they were putting inside, and no one else. Reminding a line from Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, in which Simon Bolivar’s manservant declares “Only my master knows what my master is thinking”.

These wrappings as sculptures, placed in a museum as an altarpiece, are a means to materialise intangible memories that never disintegrate, wither, fade, discolour or go out of function. In fact, with the passage of time, these grow, formalise and eternalise, so that they turn into most-worthy and cherished possessions. Regardless of their simplistic appearances, mundane recollections and banal significance – and ordinary materials (fabric/ plastic) to hold and preserve them.

Yousefzada further recognises the act of migration, through the potent symbol of boat in his show. Fabricated in Karachi, it reminds one of innumerable voyages of inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilisation to its contemporary geographical settlements on similar-looking elementary vessels. Yousefzada’s boat, made of eucalyptus wood and enamel paint (and displayed in the courtyard of V&A next to a pond), may refer to Egyptian boats for transposing to afterlife for their pharaohs. In any case, a migrant is shedding his/ her past existence, customs, conditions while anticipating a new version/ world. It is a rebirth.

In Yousefzada’s art, the boat becomes a metaphor for artefacts, goods and products transported to England – for pavilions of Great Exhibition of 1851 held at the Crystal Palace, which were later transferred to South Kensington Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum). In the first quarter of 21st Century products manufactured by artisans of Karachi are not received as artefacts, but as works of art, a collaboration between boat makers of Karachi and Osman Yousefzada.

The artist, in that sense, is not documenting a recent, or post-colonial migration, but investigating the idea, aspirations, struggles and consequences of running away from one’s frustrating lands for other, prosperous pastures. Yousefzada’s boat holds and is accompanied by poles/ flags, which are normally found in mausoleums and shrines of sufi saints, emblems of public’s devotion to those sages who in the distant past had moved from Central Asia and Middle East to India. These emblems, pieces of fabric are another document of journey, from here to heaven, from a miserable worldly existence to a promised afterlife.

This blend of banal and profound is also visible in a number of constructions by Yousefzada, derived from the indigenous furniture of northern India/ Pakistan. Charpoy and peerhi stools are restructured as embodiments of displacement, as well as acclaiming one’s space. Compared to Victorian, European modern and contemporary furniture, these concoctions are not heavy or fixed. These can be picked – like a pand and put at a favourable spot. The fact that charpoy, in place of bed, is not specific to one site, makes this product (like peerhi) a vehicle of displacement. It assumes an independence, not different from what humans have in comparison to fixed entities like trees. Thus units of charpoy and peerhi offer an unlimited freedom. To install them wherever you need or fancy (as in our villages: seeking shelter from the sun, taking cover against the rain, being closer to children’s activities). It has been practiced at the exhibition venue, because viewers/ visitors keep on arranging, rearranging, these for their comfort and convenience. This unlimited choice, option, liberty, invokes the age-old understanding of an individual’s freedom. It also converts a viewer into a collaborator, hence demolishing the power-distance gulf between the maker and the viewers/ visitors/ users.

Every morning, visitors to V&A take peerhi stools from the courtyard and play with them; yet these remain in the domain of Osman Yousefzada’s oeuvre. When combined, these could become a semblance of the Ka’ba, or an overpowering cubit. Visitors’ recreation/ re-composition of Yousefzada’s work – in its multiple variations/ digression, engages a Western public in a subcontinental way of life, postures, furniture; and is a means of bridging many gaps and demolishing several boundaries between ethnic cultures, customs, conditions.

The art of Osman Yousefzada is reclaiming the space, aesthetics and narrative for objects abandoned by those who left in dire conditions – only to immortalise them as works of art, and life – without making a distinction between the two.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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