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Between Two Worlds

How navigating two distinct communities in childhood has shaped Osman Yousefzada's artwork.

Ikon Gallery
Ikon Gallery

Osman Yousefzada’s parents left Pakistan and Afghanistan to build a life in Birmingham, England. As Yousefzada grew up, he occupied two distinct worlds—his devout Pashtun community and the secular world surrounding it. He came of age observing these stark contrasts before going on to attend university, become a fashion designer worn by the likes of Beyoncé and Lupita Nyong’o, and shift into a visual arts practice; a current installation speaks to immigrant communities occupying central spaces. His art has been shaped by his childhood roots, which he chronicles in a new memoir, The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing Up Between Different Worlds.

How did you navigate different worlds in childhood?

The differences were as simple as fish fingers—as simple as what food was available at school lunches versus what food was on the table at home. There’s gender—I went to a coed school where there were boys and girls, but my sisters at home weren’t allowed to go to school. There’s the idea of belief systems—in Islam we are told we are the chosen ones, and that was reinforced regularly. We thought that everyone outside was on their way to hell, and we were keeping ourselves safe. There was an entrenched belief that if we let our culture go, we were going to lose everything.

It’s a distinct world, where the community completely looks inward, even though they came for a better life. It’s telling of how society wants to invite you to come be part of the economic system but doesn’t embrace you or allow you to integrate. There’s a sense of close proximity, but then again, there seems to be a hard border.

It’s difficult to understand anything when you’re in it, so you have to go away. I left home and went to London. I had an experience of another life, so I was able to come back and feel what was “good” and what was “bad.” I have different periods of faith; sometimes it’s strong, sometimes it’s nonexistent, and sometimes it merges onto experiences of other faiths. There’s been a pivotal moment for me since my Dad’s death—the idea that community is important and needs to be cherished. For example, right now my mom is ill. She still lives in the house I grew up in, and all of her friends are visiting. In the evening there are about 30 people; at any time there are five or six. That’s beautiful.