Mahtab Hussain grew up in Birmingham as a British Pakistani, who struggled with his won identity, never feeling as though he fitted with one cultural group. In a recent interview with UK’s Crack magazine he explained: ‘The white kids would call me ‘Paki’ and ask me when I was going home’ and ‘The Asian guys were like, ‘Where’ve you come from? You look like us but you’re English’. He was frequently being called ‘coconut’ or ‘bounty’. With his exhibition You Got Me? Hussain turned these experiences as a youngster into a photograph exhibition with the goal of changing the narrative on young Muslim men. It is the outcome of 10 years spent diligently lensing the British Asian community of which he is a product.
Invisibility of British Asians in art
The journey for creating this exhibition started when he moved to London, where he studied History of Art at Goldsmiths and was introduced to the ideas of black academics Frantz Fanon and Stuart Hall. Hussain thought, ‘Oh my God, why isn’t anyone making work about British Asians?’ He then went home and wrote on a piece of paper what he wanted to be the artist to do this. Five years working in galleries brought him in to the feeling that he was ‘invisible’ in the art surrounding him, so he decided to do it himself. ‘I was like ‘Fuck this, I’m just going to give it a go.’
Changing the narrative
And so, Hussain returned to the community he left. Initially photographing British Asians in Birmingham, he went on to lens the shared experience of young men across the country. For Hussain, it was a rediscovery of his own community and a way to understand who these men – British Asian, working class and Muslim – really were. He would say to them, ‘Aren’t you sick and tired of being labelled a terrorist and told this country isn’t yours? The media is painting us as this barbaric and violent community. I need your help to change this narrative’.
Race, representation and cultural difference
The exhibition You Get Me? addresses the contested political terrain of race and representation, respect and cultural difference. The men portrayed in Hussain’s portraits identify as Muslim, and expressed that they felt culturally ridiculed by the constant flow of derogatory media representation of their lives. The 24 portraits in the exhibition examine how the weight of masculinity impacts the subject’s sense of self, as they navigate the complex identity formations historically placed upon them.
You Get Me? takes important steps in representing these boys and men in mainstream society, while peeling back complex issues of race, culture, and religion. ‘There’s a comment on male beauty and who gets seen as beautiful and who gets represented. I’m trying to do it in the most poetic and beautiful way possible.’
‘Mahtab Hussain’s tender portraits peel back the layers of British Asian masculinity’ by Alice Nicolov, Crack magazine, Issue 77, June 2017.
Autograph ABP – Exhibition: ‘Mahtab Hussain’ You get Me?
Pictures: Mahtab Hussain, from You Get Me?, 2017. Courtesy the artist
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