My latest exhibition You Get Me? focusses on the changing identity of young, working-class Asian men in contemporary Britain. Produced over a nine-year period (2008–2017), during which the artist travelled around Birmingham, and later in Nottingham and London, photographing, researching and documenting, the series portrays the dynamic relationship between identity, heritage and displacement. The men portrayed in my portraits identify as Muslim, and clearly express that they feel culturally ridiculed by the constant flow of derogatory media representation of their lives.
With an increasing population of just under three million, British Muslims have been an integral part of the country, and especially since the early 1950s when Muslim men helped to rebuild Britain after the Second World War. Nevertheless, and despite familial roots that often date before the last century, an increasing number of British Muslims—and particularly men—feel a growing sense of alienation. Often labelled as extremists, and demonised in virtually every facet of society, they frequently experience overt racism, increasing unemployment, and an alarming prison population.
Accordingly, these men struggle to develop a strong sense of identity. Unwittingly, they’re combatting decades of cultural legacies of racism, victimisation, class, and colonialism, and more recently, the pressures of redefining the definition of what it means to be a man. While British Muslim females are largely accepted in the workplace, have a sense of self, and have a greater sense of balance with their religious identity, men consistently have their identity challenged.
Set against a destructive environment thrown up by 9/11 and recurrent events thereafter, young British Muslim men are continually told they don’t belong, yet it is painfully apparent that these men embrace a strong sense of Britishness whilst also identifying inherently with their religion.
My portraiture deftly utilises the medium’s capacity to explore these complex narratives as he strives to create a “safe” place for his subjects. Hussain empowers his subjects to form a unique, three-way relationship between artist, sitter, and spectator, validating their right to be viewed as complex individuals, rather than a product of their cultural background and circumstances.
Mahtab Hussain: You Get Me? at Autograph ABP, London
Exhibition dates: 5 May – 1 July 2017
Preview: Thursday 4 May 2017, 6.30 – 8.30pm
A photobook of You Get Me? will be published by MACK in June to coincide with the exhibition.
IMAGE: Mahtab Hussain, Red t-shirt, baseball jacket, car, from You Get Me?, 2012. Courtesy the artist