A three-part art exhibition designed by British Pakistani artist Osman Yousefzada is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London.
With one exception that refers to colonial buildings as spaces “divided by race and class,” Yousefzada’s exhibit descriptions do not explicitly mention colonialism.
Instead, the work focuses on aspects of wider Pakistani and South Asian identity that exist outside of and despite British colonialism which, as in many British conversations, often remains an unspoken but known that hovers just below the surface.
The theme that stands out the most is that of integration. The integration, or lack of integration, of people who migrated from modern India to Pakistan during partition. The integration of traditional aspects of South Asian identity and history into the formation of a new Pakistani identity and the tension or compatibility between the two.
If the theme of colonialism was not often explicit, it is naturally difficult not to think about it. The V&A, named after the same monarch once declared ‘Empress of India’ and his wife, seemed the most appropriate location in the UK for an installation illustrating the score’s themes.
Education about the impact and aftermath of colonialism should strike at the heart of society and leave an indelible mark on our minds, just as this exhibit does.
After all, it was against the backdrop of the British colonial powers escalating communal tensions and animosity through divide and rule, coupled with fears for the preservation of the Muslim community in an independent Hindu-majority India. , that the demand for a separate Muslim homeland in Southeast Asia was born.
But this exhibit reminds us that Pakistani identity encompasses much more than that, with many aspects that predate or are distinct from what the British did in South Asia.
Three tapestries hang at one of the entrances to the museum. They depict figures described as “reminiscent of ancient talismanic figures and storytelling”, inspired by a book called Falnama, which would later become the roots of tarot cards used in Mughal India, among others.
The figures are also said to mirror those found at Mohenjo Daro, an ancient Indus civilization located in Sindh. This play’s striking relevance to the overall themes seems to be that it contains characters who have a “long history of struggle who don’t see themselves as ‘the good immigrant’.”
The tapestries are an important reminder of the rich history of the land of Pakistan. It stands at the crossroads of various civilizations, cultures and religions at many stages of history: a crucial challenge for the colonial mentality that believed it had “discovered” places and brought with it “civilization” and “history”. Instead, each pre-existing civilization represents a thread woven into this greater tapestry that makes up modern Pakistan, influencing folklore, language, dress and music.
Another work in this thought-provoking exhibition is a sculpture that resembles a large stack of shelves, on which are placed household objects wrapped in fabrics or plastic.
Qualified as an “altar of the female migratory experience”, it is a “tribute to hidden women who did not know or did not have the codes to integrate into new lands”.
Indeed, its positioning in the stairwell feels like a nod to the fact that the female voice has been sidelined, not occupying the center stage of our attention. But the women had their own experiences of partition, the most upsetting being the well-documented kidnappings and rapes on top of the upheavals.
But this sculpture, as an “act of action in patriarchal spaces,” works to identify and remember these women. As the artist suggests, each unique fold and knot was “their marks of identity and ownership”.
The garden houses a third part of the installation. To echo the fluidity of migration and change, the work consists of pairhi saddles. In the center are charpe beds made from reclaimed fabrics and woods, the latter from what would have been pieces of colonial architecture that the artist describes as having been “dropped from the vertical axis to the horizontal axis, shifting the dynamic from the power of a hierarchical architecture to a community architecture”.
It felt like a lesson, that something quite beautiful and familiar was rescued from the ugly and unequal power distribution of colonialism, that South Asians dismantled and from there reformed and remade their traditional objects who have a history outside of the British. It would certainly be an emotional act of challenge and recovery.
The rest of this section consists of a wooden ship placed not on water but on dry land, designed to symbolize “colonial expansion and current climatic precariousness”.
While Pakistan has been among the most vulnerable countries to climate change for decades, this year’s heat waves followed by extreme floods have hit that point. A country that contributes relatively low carbon emissions bears the brunt of climate change, while former colonial powers, like the UK, contributed more and yet suffer less. Displacement is not confined to the history books, but a lived experience of today, with this year’s floods causing migration, loss of life and destruction of livelihoods. Unless swift action is taken by nations working together to combat climate change, these experiences will become the new norm.
This exhibition plays a vital role in challenging us to reflect on the realities of displacement, integration and climate change while inhabiting our public spaces. It challenges the whitewashing of colonial narratives by providing insight into the multi-faceted traditions that thousands of years of history have fostered in the land that modern Pakistan inhabits today; traditions that not only predate but have survived British history in South Asia. And for all these reasons, Osman Yousefzada’s exhibition is certainly worth a visit.
On view until September 25 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Yousefzada’s work was commissioned by the British Council as part of its “Pakistan/UK: New Perspectives” season, in partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum and Pakistan High Commission. It was also supported by the ZVM Rangoonwala Foundation.
The author is a researcher and is currently undertaking a Ph.D. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter.