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‘It’s a meeting of worlds:’ Bringing the immigrant experience to the English country house

Countless creative ideas have been born in the kitchen of Charleston House, the bohemian modernist farmhouse inhabited from 1916 by painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in a rural part of southern England.

While the times of Grant and Bell — and the accompanying bohemian “Bloomsbury group” of writers and artists such as Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forrester — began more than a century ago, the house (now open to the public, alongside a gallery space) remains dedicated to bringing people together to “engage with art and ideas.”

It was in the kitchen after one such gathering — a festival in the summer of 2023 — that Osman Yousefzada, a British writer, and interdisciplinary artist, suggested the exhibition now on at the gallery, titled “Queer Feet.”

Charleston House in southern England is known as the 20th century home of a group of influential artists and intellectuals dubbed the "Bloomsbury Group" - Lee Robbins/Courtesy The Charleston Trust
Charleston House in southern England is known as the 20th century home of a group of influential artists and intellectuals dubbed the "Bloomsbury Group" - Lee Robbins/Courtesy The Charleston Trust

“It’s predominantly about home and identity,” said the gallery’s curator, Emily Hill, during a private preview. “As a contemporary artist and the child of Pakistani and Afghan immigrants (to the UK), much the work is informed by migration and the migratory experience, and themes of race, class and queerness.”

Brought up in a tight-knit Muslim Pashtun community in inner-city Birmingham (a large city in the middle of England) Yousefzada said the notions of home, belonging and the spectre of his late mother informs a lot of his work. Theirs was a different reality to that of life at Charleston.

Osman Yousefzada in his studio. - Courtesy Osman Yousefzada
Osman Yousefzada in his studio. - Courtesy Osman Yousefzada

“What I do is try and tell working class stories in highbrow institutional spaces,” Yousefzada told CNN in a phone interview. “In particular, sharing the realities of my mom’s experience as a maker. She was a seamstress and very talented but despite that, she — and other women like her within the community — could never really be seen as ‘an artist’. She never went to art school, she couldn’t read or write, she wasn’t literate in the language. But she was a maker. And then I copied her and through this kind-of ‘intergenerational conversation,’ I can take up spaces where those voices were never really allowed to be.”

A meeting of worlds

The show places objects from Yousefzada’s world into the rarefied upper class artistic reality of the house’s Bloomsbury group. “Even now, generations on, Charleston is still a very aspirational and very privileged space, but I try and subvert that.., to open the space for working class voices,” said Yousefzada.

Some of the work features depictions of characters in the “Falnama,” a book of omens used by 16th century fortune tellers in Iran, India and Turkey which Yousefzada posits as “guides through the immigrant experience.” - Above Ground Studio/Courtesy Osman Yousefzada
Some of the work features depictions of characters in the “Falnama,” a book of omens used by 16th century fortune tellers in Iran, India and Turkey which Yousefzada posits as “guides through the immigrant experience.” - Above Ground Studio/Courtesy Osman Yousefzada

In one room, an old Afghan rug from Duncan Grant’s time at Charleston is shown placed underneath a mysterious object wrapped in a plastic-like covering belonging to Yousefzada’s mother, who — for reasons of convenience (in case of needing to move), protection and space always had her few possessions “wrapped and ready to go,” said Hill. “Having pieces from these two realities displayed together, it’s a meeting of worlds.”

“In homes like Charleston, things like carpets are seen as symbols of great upper class interior design,” he continued. “The Bloomsbury group, in that house, they kind-of invented the idea of how so-called ‘bohemian upper class’ interiors should look, and we’re still influenced by that.”

More than a century after Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell first lived in Charleston, their colorful interiors are still held up as a example of a beacon of interior design. - Lee Robbins/Courtesy The Charleston Trust
More than a century after Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell first lived in Charleston, their colorful interiors are still held up as a example of a beacon of interior design. - Lee Robbins/Courtesy The Charleston Trust

Yousefzada’s inspirations for the show are varied. From braiding and knots — a link to the umbilical and notions of belonging, but also, said Yousefzada, denoting how a woman is seen in some communities as being “more pure, desexualized” if her hair is plaited — to depictions of characters in the “Falnama,” a book of omens used by 16th century fortune tellers in Iran, India and Turkey which Yousefzada posits as “guides through the immigrant experience.”

But there’s also a focus on identity via “subversive and queer systems,” said Hill, drawing attention to a series of large-scale textiles titled “Queer Feet” (a nod to the title of the show) depicting figures taken from 1950’s men’s physique magazines, similar to those that Duncan Grant used in his own work. Rendered in barricade tape, next to distinctly domestic objects that reference the artist’s heritage such as embroidered tablecloths, “these bodies, outlined and sewn in barricade tape signify ‘no go’, you know?” said Hill. “A warning, caution.”

"Unless you're signposted that having a creative life is OK, it's not an easy path to take," said Yousefzada. - Above Ground Studio/Courtesy
"Unless you're signposted that having a creative life is OK, it's not an easy path to take," said Yousefzada. - Above Ground Studio/Courtesy

It wasn’t Yousefzada’s only cautionary tale. “I grew up not being allowed to draw, and I didn’t until I came to London aged 18 and found my own path,” he said. “I didn’t know what art school was. I grew up in a restricted monoculture and so it took me a long time to find those (artistic) spaces. Unless you’re signposted that having a creative life is ok, it’s not an easy path to take. It’s interesting to explore that in a place like Charleston.”

“Queer Feet” at Charleston House in Firle near Lewes, England runs til April 14.

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