New Year’s Day 2022 began at 10.32 am with the death of my mother. I busied myself in ritual, she had broken me with grief, and I keep breaking each day. I had moved to London when I turned eighteen, but the last three years I’d been going back home every weekend to the same streets I grew up in, to look after her. Dad was a carpenter, he died three years ago. He, and his comrades, relatives, kin-men, pioneers, migrants had built a close community. They had walked together on the dusty paths of the frontier in Pakistan, and now walked the cobbled paths in industrial Birmingham, the faded glory of a city that needed to be rebuilt, once the workshop of the world. Britain still had Great before it – these immigrants had come to “Vilayat”, the epicentre of wealth extraction, where the white folk lived. Its tenements, its terraces, the back-to-backs among the prostitutes, is where we lived – on top of each other, facing each other, side by side where our attars, our masalas, our smells rose and intermingled and seeped through those white walls. Our tight-knit community grew, where we all policed each other, attended each other’s ceremonies, celebrated births, celebrated segregated marriages, and mourned the dead.
My parents were from the land where Pakistan borders Afghanistan, where the Taliban tried to shoot Malala dead. Once a Taliban stronghold, but still the domain of the ultra-orthodox, the righteous spread their codes and instructed dutiful bodies to follow them.
Pakistan means the land of the holy, the pious. When Pakistanis came to England, Enoch Powell was waiting just round the corner in Birmingham, bathed in Rivers of Blood, claiming the white man cannot live with the Black man – then, the brown man was also called Black. I recall these stories in The Go-Between, which launched at the end of January. It’s a window into a hidden community, where men lose their jobs as Thatcher closes the factories, women can’t leave their homes and girls are taken out of school as they approach puberty. Where worlds collide and those at its front lines are trapped in a search for belonging.
Brown body, White face
Inevitably, as a seamstress my mother was more interested in my garment-making than my life as an author and artist – working with moving image, installations, sculpture and performance. But all my work starts as a conversation about migration: finding identity, finding space. I don’t see it as disparate.
As a fashion designer I fuse Western tailoring with Asian cuts and construction; the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift wear my clothes. But the real narrative is far deeper. Although I’m British-born and raised I had to downplay my background. People with BAME backgrounds were rare in this elite world. For years I tried to pretend I fitted in, such as by dropping the slight Brummie accent I learnt in the streets (we never spoke English at home).
Sophia Nefertiti is hosting a dinner for me in London Fashion Week, but that’s it, no fuss. The older I get, the less I want to engage with the commercial world. Instead of the seasonality of “what’s next?”, I want to focus on the artisans like my parents who had sovereignty over their talent. Because of them, I don’t make fashion anymore, I make garments. It’s about honest output.
Racism and inequality still exist at every level of fashion, including the millions of garment workers in South Asia. So many clothes are made by a brown body and sold to a white face. The artisans in the west, whether Scottish islanders knitting for a cashmere company or white-coated makers in a couture house, are seen differently. In Asia, craftsmanship and sovereignty are basically about being bargained into the ground, like in the film Greed.
Local and international
I believe in the value of local, of internationalism rather than globalisation. Champagne has cultural value from being identified with one area of France, but goods from poorer parts of the world are ripe for exploitation. You don’t know if lapis lazuli in jewellery is from Afghanistan. Everything is run on the idea of western global norm supremacy – that the west knows and is better.
In Afghanistan, the West fucked up over twenty years of nation-building and then left. When the army went in the perceived threat was Osama bin Laden, but there was also a hidden agenda of economic extraction. You can’t use an army to nation-build. They didn’t make a dialogue with the Taliban, they got in bed with elites who thought only of themselves, and in the end you have a corrupt system; eventually they shrugged and said, well, these guys are ungovernable, we’re just going to be there forever, so we’ll leave. It’s been given a PR spin of western superiority: “Look at these women, they’re not being educated, the schools have been closed down.” My mum would say it’s the respect you give that really matters, whether that’s an individual, extended family, a community or a country.
In my 2020 Ikon art show, Being Somewhere Else, I reconstructed my mother’s bedroom, with cooking pans wrapped in plastic, ready to flee at any moment if Britain threw her out. She asked me who slept there. She didn’t understand an empty bed when so many are homeless. And that’s the elitism I’ve gained access to, thanks to the self-sacrifice of my parents. It’s the luxury of creativity, of being able to pontificate on something that’s all too real for too many people: the migrant dream of a safe place.
Osman Yousefzada is an award-winning writer, artist and designer who studied at SOAS, Central Saint Martins and Cambridge University. His UK exhibitions have included the Whitechapel and the V&A. “The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing up Between Different Worlds” is published by Canongate