These are trying times for the subjects of Mahtab Hussain’s latest work. The artist’s series of portraits titled ‘You Get Me?’ is a timely look at young, working class South Asian men, who identify as Muslim. A community that is at once under pernicious state surveillance, as well as increasing intimidation from an emboldened far-right. Born out of seeing a distinct lack of these voices throughout art history – Hussain embarked upon a nine-year journey that took him through London, Birmingham and Nottingham, meeting and speaking to young men whose portraits are now being shown at the Autograph Gallery in London.
What draws me instantly to the work, is the familiarity: these are spaces I’ve seen and people I’ve met countless times. And yet, here I was seeing the familiar depicted in a way that was new to me – fine art portraits of faces that don’t usually grace gallery walls.
One of the key difficulties for Hussain was developing a relationship and understanding of the men he was looking to include. The post 9/11 paranoia within the Muslim community has never really subsided – and in the age of the Prevent program, stop and search, and even shootings at the hands of the police, it isn’t unfounded. These are young men who are very aware of the eye of the state and wary of outsiders, or at least those they perceive as outsiders.
Even as a member of the community and having grown up in Birmingham, being a practising artist made Hussain an outsider in these spaces to some degree.
“Walking the streets I was constantly rejected, I remember I walked and cycled the streets for over a week and did not connect with anyone, which was psychologically tough, people were just not interested, they looked at me and questioned who I was, and how I was going to make such a change, they believed that nothing was going to come about with my work, that I was wasting my time, essentially, a ‘Paki’ couldn’t do anything to stop all this hate”
The hard work paid off though, and Hussain describes the connections that he eventually made as ‘magical’, explaining the change in mood that occurred when he moved to digital and was able to show the sitters the results instantly.
The book accompanying the exhibition includes quotes from the men taking part, adding another obstacle in the form of airing ‘dirty laundry’. These are communities in which societal respect, or izzat serves as strong currency. Hussain described one instance in which an elder held reservations on the public nature of the work:
“…one father told me he went home, and after looking at his own sons, he quickly realised that he needed to be a better father. But he told me not to include any of the quotes as he was worried it would make the community look bad”
Choosing to address these issues head-on, Hussain didn’t censor the quotes. These are young men whose voices are largely absent both in the mainstream and within the socio-religious structure, and including them was central to the work.
What is perhaps most compelling about the series is the multiplicity of narratives within it, which we simply don’t see in depictions of these groups. There are portraits of young teenagers struggling with their sense of self and beauty, boys in boxing gyms and leaning out of cars. Then there are softer, more arresting images that remind us that behind the bravado and the penchant for designer labels, these are just young men, boyish even. And in those quieter images one is forced to peel away the labels society has given to this community.
Hussain describes the pain and frustration of the participants with regards to how they are shown in wider media. What was heartening to hear was that the young men did very much feel connected to each other at least in that regard, that despite having fissures within the Muslim community – that in relation to the ‘Them’ of the outside world, their ‘Us’ was encompassing. I asked Hussain about whether the views of the sitters went further than Islamophobia, and if they spoke more directly on wider political issues.
“Some did and would talk about the shock of Brexit, and pretty much everyone in the community I met thought Prevent was not effective but outrageous even, it is essentially spying on the community and encourages the stigma that we are not to be trusted.”
This is significant – it is a sound and eloquent critique of the policy that affects these young men and their families. It is this discord between the state machination and its subjects that Hussain’s work speaks to so well.
One side of the exhibition space sees smaller portraits of school-age boys, in contrast to their older brothers in faith around them. Hussain told me how having these portraits together, and having them smaller in size brought the question of the future into the discussion; whether these boys would follow the footsteps of the elders, or whether they would carve out a new, freer identity.
Both Birmingham and London are home to sizeable and culturally significant South Asian heritage Muslim communities, but this exhibition goes much further than the soundbites and news clips that we are used to seeing. In almost a decade of collating images and striking up conversations with strangers, Hussain has managed to bring together multiple narratives and introduce young, working class, South Asian men as fine art. I asked him what he wanted people to take away from the exhibition.
“Certain sitters allow the viewer to gaze upon them, while others challenge what they are looking at. Do you see them as men? Are they British men, Asian men or Muslim men? Can you dare to see them as fine art portraits? Because that is where I stand, as they are more than worthy to hold this title. Or are they documentary, because black and brown men photographed in their own spaces by black and brown artists can be nothing but documentary?”
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The winner of Poetry Rivals 2015, Jamal Mehmood has had poetry and essays published on various online and offline platforms including Media Diversified and BBC Asian Network. His debut collection of poetry, ‘Little Boy Blue’ is out now, through Burning Eye Books. It is an eclectic first collection that looks at family, nostalgia and social pain as well as personal stories of identity and belonging. In 2016, his essay ‘Language, Life and Love: Our Immigrant Parents’ was published in Media Diversified’s ‘From the Lines of Dissent’ through Outspoken Press. His work explores themes of nostalgia, political issues and personal stories. He is looking to write for film in the near future. Find him at jamalbhai.com or @_jamabhai.