"The exhibition is homage to my mother and her resilience," says British fashion designer Osman Yousefzada of his first ever solo art show, Being Somewhere Else, which recently opened in his hometown, at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. The show presents installations of three domestic environments that explore his mother’s experience as a migrant in Birmingham, and her life at home. This weekend the gallery will also host The Migrant Festival, an event series curated by Osman, bringing together diverse speakers and creatives to weave a path through the central theme of cultural displacement.
"My mum is from a little village in the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Taliban heartland," Osman explains. "She came to the UK as part of a small community that transplanted themselves in Birmingham and created a very insular environment. The women weren’t allowed to go out. As a young male I had to open the front door because our mothers weren’t allowed to interact with men. My mum had a sewing business and that’s why I could make clothes from the age of 10, but then eventually I wasn’t allowed to hang out with the women because I was a grown man and segregation was practised."
"Migration can be about yearning for something better, something safer," Osman notes, and therein lies the conflict for him: "Within the process of migration, hierarchies are also transported." Confronted by Osman’s recreation of his mother’s world through three artfully curated domestic environments, visitors will surely ask: Did Osman’s mother yearn for another relocation? An intimate portrait of her bedroom and her belongings, all wrapped in plastic bags, allows for a variety of interpretations.
"She’s never felt settled. It’s been a difficult life for her so she has these objects wrapped up like a burial chamber for a new life, as if they’re going to be passed on to someone. It’s the act of living with very little. It’s about saving – you know the classic migration thing of sitting round on plastic-covered sofas – it’s about protection," Osman says. Another room features everyday domestic implements that have doubled as weapons; each one involved in the control of his mother by his father and the upholding of old ways.
Osman went to school in Birmingham and had opportunities to be immersed in culture, yet he lived with parents who couldn’t read or write in any language. Did he live a split life? "It’s still split now," Osman says. "It’s still like stepping into another world. They don’t speak English and live in a very inward-looking community. The mosque is a key part of all of that and everything is broadcast from the mosque into the houses."
Osman is clear, however, that the exhibition celebrates his mother’s strength. "It’s a deliberately feminine space because there’s always elegance to find. I come from a very gritty background and so I always look for beauty. It’s not the other way round where a middle-class kid wants to seek out something really grungy. I grew up with all that. What I’m doing is very beautiful and elegant and feminine as well as activating a space for dialogue around migration and especially the women within that journey."
The Migrant Festival is this weekend, with Osman in conversation 6.30-7.30pm on Saturday 16th June. Being Somewhere Else is at Ikon Gallery until 29th June.