Venice Biennale: Osman Yousefzada’s Palazzo for Immigrants
In a collaboration with the V&A Museum & Fondazione Berengo, British-Pakistani artist & writer Osman Yousefzeda has created a unique exhibition, the Palazzo for Immigrants. With humour & gravitas, the artist draws idea & reference from his own life as well as that from the experiences of immigrants the world over, as explored by Hadeel Eltayeb.

“They used to tell me when I was young, ‘Your tongue is too long’” – a familiar refrain shared by Arabic speakers, one that rarely follows children who play by the rules. This was a warning interdisciplinary artist Osman Yousefzada, mercifully, never heeded and he has been shaking up trouble ever since.

The day we met, we began our discussion on the ongoing issues for art seekers to find his exhibition at the Palazzo Franchetti, part of the 60th International exhibition for Art Biennale in Venice, in collaboration with the Fondazione Berengo and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). This trouble stemmed from its title Welcome! A Palazzo for Immigrants; the potential to be confused for a makeshift shelter for immigrants in the city of Venice was a provocation too far, and the municipality refused to erect signage for it – ironically, his exhibition shares a floor of the historic Palazzo Franchetti with the iconoclastic Breasts exhibition which leers out from signage all along my route to meet him that morning. But Yousefzada is up for the challenge and finds a dark humour in his work, commissioned for this year’s overarching Foreigners Everywhere theme, appearing to be too on-the-nose: “Really, it is about trying to put you in your place.”

He has no problem occupying space where his presence was not expected, let alone welcomed. Born to parents who arrived in England from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the 1960s, early on he knew the alchemy of drawing strength from struggle; both of his parents were skilled, his father as a carpenter and his mother a seamstress, although neither could read or write, and grew up with four siblings in Birmingham’s inner-city. He moved to London to study Anthropology at SOAS, before pivoting to a degree studying in Fashion in 2008 at Central St. Martins.

Yousefzada has had a phenomenally successful career as a designer for over ten years. In that time, he dressed the likes of Thandie Newton, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce in his vibrant fashion – and was infamously responsible for the latter’s black and white jumpsuit at the 2013 Grammy’s pre-ceremony. His expansive practice in this period includes experimentation with visual art, showing in exhibitions in the United kingdom and in South Asia, as well as experimenting with moving image, activist writing and performance.

Now his practice as an interdisciplinary artist is deeply rooted in socially-engaged art practice, education, and activism, attaining a PhD at the Royal College of Art and a teaching fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge. It seems hard to believe that creating designs for Beyonce has now been relegated to a career footnote in a biography showing a dedicated commitment to transformative art and design on the global stage, and yet this is the course Yousefzada is set for.

Yousefzada has built a reputation for work which shocks the system. His installations are underpinned by a charged relationship with space and an arresting visual language, subverting society’s assumptions on his British-Pakistani cultural heritage through meaningful intervention. His 2022 site-specific installations at the V&A, What is Seen and What is Not, mediated on migration and displacement, playing with aesthetic forms via bright textiles, printworks, and sculpted objects, characteristic of Yousefzada’s upbringing. Visitors to the V&A collections who aimed to shy away from the postcolonial were confronted with a selection of crafted objects including a triptych of hanging tapestries in the museum’s foyer, a wooden boat, a hand-woven charpoy, and textile stools in the John Madejski garden. Yousefzada defiantly positioned the vibrancy of Pakistan’s communities and cultural production in plain sight and in dialogue within colonial histories of the museum building and collection.

His 2024 work Venice project, Welcome! A Palazzo for Immigrants, curated by Nadja Romain and  Amin Jaffer, is a spatial mediation on the interior world of the migrant; converging the domestic and the sacred and carving personal space within communal spaces. Ultimately, it is about hope. The beauty of finding the space to dream and to transform beyond their limited means. And yet, for an exhibition with welcome in the title, artseekers will have to work much harder to uncover the venue within the labyrinth of San Marco without clear wayfinding – not helped by the municipality’s refusal of signage.

Once the Palazzo Franchetti is reached, and Yousefzada’s exhibition found up a narrow staircase, the tension between façade and interior speak volumes. The palazzo is a grand public structure, but it is also a home. The traces of histories and collective memories, sedimented within the layers of stones and bricks laid by many hands, are largely forgotten. “As it becomes a palazzo of the past, where it holds a family name and a plaque on the top of it,” Yousefzada says, “those other stories can get lost – and it’s the same stories of labour and their rituals that get lost.”

Exploring labour and value through craft is at the crux of Yousefzada’s practice. He undertakes rigorous research into materials shared in his installations, including Venice’s history as a trade hub with the Middle east which brought glassmakers to the city, as well as rare items like lapis lazuli and spices. But the Venice installation also includes objects from closer to his home – including a pieces made by the last metal spinners from workshops in the UK’s Midlands. Yousefzada showed me how the same process that created a humble ash tray could also create the socket for a Rolls Royce car. “The same person made them, one is sold for £3.50 and one is sold for thousands,” the artist adds, “but that person is paid the same.”

A spirit of hospitality begins at entry to the exhibition. Arabic blessings are whispered in ink along the hallways and door into the space. Inside, the artworks reflect a reverence for deep silence, “for other dreams to surface and listen to their frequencies,” the artist says. And where it felt very silent, he hopes “the signs will let you hear our dreams.” What also comes across, with the only soundscape in the exhibition, is a deep pulsating hum reverberating throughout the room, which Yousefzada describes as reminiscent of his mother in the kitchen: “The maternal hum is the most powerful, alchemic thing. It is this inter-generational conversation, and all that tacit knowledge doesn't just happen just like that. Sometimes alchemy doesn't happen overnight and it's not instantaneous. It may take a generation or two.”

His mother is an invited host in the exhibition, reflected in the long plait that hangs from the ceiling, the unadorned centre part as a metonym for the pious representation of women in the social spaces he was raised in. But there is a wildness to these women too, a rebellious spirit he carefully alludes to; these plaits climb across the room and root themselves into the ground, growing claws.

Spread across a grand table in the final room, there is black pepper – once known as black gold – and nutmeg, some of the most historically expensive spices available. The table’s offerings are another ode to his mother, who occupied space in her own particular way, the artist explaining proudly that “she would never have described herself as an artist, but that is how she took up her own space.” Yousefzada has represented the dining table, kitchen, and spaces which his mother claimed as hers, but in which she also hid. His mother’s offerings are the humbly knotted plastic bags wrapped into knots, which she would leave all over the house, an intervention that represents occupying space even with limited means. He reimagined these odes to his mother’s presence as handblown Murano glass sculptures in collaboration with Berengo Studio, crafted to look wrapped and positioned all over dining table.

In Yousefzada’s work, these bags speak to an idea of the fleeing immigrant in a transient life, hoarding belongings with bags already packed; protected from dust, ants, and any other unwelcome intrusion. But for Yousefzada, it's more about the knots; he speaks about control and the way as a society we carve out a personal space we carry around on our own, and how we are uncomfortable with opening that personal space when, through our digital selves, we often share so much. This is why his work often deals with the domestic space: “The domestic is a very easy and open space for me, because it's where you dream from, where you sleep from, where you hide parts of yourself – in the eaves of the attic, in the cupboards, or tucked in drawers.”

He considered the communal spaces he shared with his parents, where there was little time alone, and the places they retreated to. For Yousefzada, it is not the sense of the bags being packed, it is more that “I know when someone has been through my things because those knots I tied in them are open.”

There is beauty in Yousefzada’s metaphors throughout the exhibition narrative, rooted in the spiritual life of the immigrant, their strength of self, and their resilience to dream through struggle. The mangoes found throughput the presentation are reminder of this – the artist speaking of the fruit that fall to the ground the mangoes that grow even without the tree – though they take longer to bear fruit. He describes this as akin to the displacement of industrial production, and like the anecdote of Midlands’ metal spinners, the mango is a metaphor for the difference between those who labour over something and those who get to enjoy the end fruit. The importance of dreams takes up material and immaterial space in the exhibition, of which Yousefzada explains that “There are dreams which can be heard, those that cannot and eventually fossilise and those that come and sit with us in silence.”

Yousefzada employs the space in the Palazzo Franchetti to stage these conversations, listening to the frequency of our dreams and the echoes of the dreams of those who came before us. “Because if we don't try to understand each other and we don't tell each other stories, then we don't have any cohesion.” It is a reminder to invoke these histories that would otherwise be forgotten and it is a call to create sacred spaces within our own communities, to set our own tables and play host for our own dreams to find fruit.

Osman Yousefzada is a British-Pakistani artist and writer, born in Birmingham UK, whose work engages with the representation, rupture, and reimagining of the immigrant experience. His work incorporates textiles, print-making, installations, sculpture and performance. Yousefzada has shown at international institutions including: Whitechapel Gallery, London; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; Ringling Museum, Florida; Lahore Museum, Pakistan; and Design Museum, London. Lahore Biennale, Pakistan and Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh.
Recent solo shows include; Queer Feet (2024) at Charleston House, Embodiments of Memory (2023) at the Ceramics Biennale, Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent and More Immigrants Please (2023) a nationwide series of billboards with Artichoke. His large-scale series of solo interventions What Is Seen and What Is Not at London’s V&A in 2022, was commissioned by the British Council in partnership with the V&A. In May 2024 he opens the prelude to Bradford City of Culture 2025 with a solo show at Cartwright Hall.
He is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Practice at the Birmingham School of Art, BCU, teaching Borderless Practice, is a visiting Fellow at the Jesus College, Cambridge University and a Research Practitioner at the Royal College of Art. Yousefzada is also the author of The Go-Between: A Memoir of Growing Up Between Different Worlds (2022), a coming-of-age story described by Stephen Fry as ‘one of the greatest childhood memoirs of our time’.

Hadeel Eltayeb is a curator focused on identity and cultural production. Her research interests include critical readings of the archive, negotiating narratives of ownership through oral histories & negotiating the tension between individual, social & public remembering through cultural practices. She is a member of the British Art Network & the Afikra Community (a global network reframing how we understand the Arab World's cultures, histories, and futures).

Lorem Ipsum is dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. In aliquet elementum nulla, blandit tempor nunc. Phasellus ullamcorper lorem risus. Nulla in molestie dui.


Welcome! A Palazzo for Immigrants, by Osman Yousefzada & curated by Nadja Romain & Amin Jaffer, runs until 7 October. Organised in conjunction with Fondazione Berengo & the V&A Museum, the exhibition is located at Palazzo Franchetti, San Marco, 2847, Venice


All installation images of Welcome! A Palazzo for Immigrants, by Osman Yousefzada, © Casey Kelbaugh.
Portrait of Osman Yousefzada ©Casey Kelbaugh.

publication date
12 June 2024

Hadeel Eltayeb, Fashion, Fondazione Berengo, Glass, Home, Hospitality, Immigration, Knots, Labour, Midlands, Mother, Murano, Production, Nadja Romain, Amin Jaffer, Palazzo Franchetti, Venice Biennale, Victoria & Albert Museum, Osman Yousefzada