By Ali Haider Habib and Ritu Prasad
02 August 2017
Enter Autograph studios in London and more than twenty faces will meet your gaze. Artist Mahtab Hussain is one of them; the rest belong to young boys and men featured in Hussain’s photography series, You Get Me?
These men wear Adidas hoodies over Shalwar Qameez, they eat fish and chips after prayer, they pluck their eyebrows and box in beanies. They are vulnerable, curled up and asleep; they are stylish and rebellious, hanging out of car windows; they are just like all other young British boys, playing football on the pavement.
Hussain, like some other emerging artists, engages in creating a space for Islam and Britishness to co-exist by mixing some aspects of Asian and Western heritage together. And by doing so, his photographs showcase British Asian Muslim males in a light that the mainstream media generally ignores.
Over the course of nine years, Hussain has photographed hundreds of young Muslims across London, Nottingham, and his hometown of Birmingham. His book, also titled You Get Me?, came out last month and offers a look into his years of work; his London exhibit distils the years down to the 24 portraits that Hussain has selected to epitomize it all.
It’s been a personal journey to this point for Hussain, whose parents moved to Scotland from Pakistan before his birth. He was born in Glasgow, and grew up as one of only a handful of non-white children in his school. For many of his childhood years, he warred with feelings of otherness.
“For 10 years I suffered an intense amount of racism, questions about why I'm here, when I'm [going to] go back home,” Hussain says. “I shut down. I struggled. You're projected as this threat ... just someone who doesn't belong.” He became westernised, he says. Part of that meant speaking English as well as he could, forgetting his mother tongue along the way and trying to assimilate to the local culture. But those efforts did not change where he was from – he heard comments such as “Oh you're alright for a Paki”, along with plenty of unwanted attention and violence.
He recalls his mother highlighting how much of his culture he had thrown away in the process. When she refused to speak to him in English, he had to learn Urdu again.
Now at 36 years old, Hussain is tall, sharply dressed, with a pouf of black hair that’s streaked through with gray. His Muslim identity shines through his words, just as his accent shows he is as much British as he is Pakistani.
While Hussain speaks comfortably about his identity now, it all began with a serious dose of culture shock -- from people of his own ethnicity. At Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College in Birmingham, Hussain entered a predominantly Asian environment for the first time in his life.
“They'd call me Fish and Chips,” Hussain says. The other students would ask him where he was from – he looked like them, but did not speak like them nor did he act like them. He became aware that for them, being an Asian male meant being “powerful and slightly aggressive”.
Fitting in with other Asians who thought him too British sparked an introspection that would eventually lead him to portraiture. For two years Hussain wrangled with ideas of Westernisation, assimilation and what being a modern Asian male meant. By the end of his time in Birmingham, Hussain realised that mainstream society, while forthright with expectations and condemnations, did not offer a vision of what a British Asian man should or could be.
Hussain traded Birmingham for Goldsmiths in London, where he began studying the history of art. He studied photography, Asian art, postcolonialism and worked with black artists on issues of identity politics and racism. Delving into the intersection of art and identity in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Hussain found a lack of conversation around the lived realities of Muslim men and the complexities of being British Asian.
According to a 2011 census, Muslims make up 4.8 percent of the total English and Welsh population. Of these, 73 percent say their only national identity is British, and nearly half are Muslims born in the United Kingdom, like Hussain. Ethnically, Asian Muslims make up the majority of Britain’s Muslim population, with over 1.8 million citizens.
And yet, a 2010 study by the Islamic Education and Research Academy found 63 percent of British citizens surveyed did not disagree with the idea that “Muslims are terrorists.” A staggering 94 percent said they believed “Islam oppresses women.” A 2015 YouGov poll revealed 55 percent of respondents believed that “there is a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society.”
For Hussain, raising the faces of young Muslim men to the level of fine art is his way of creating spaces for conversations about how Islam and brown identities are more than the sensationalism witnessed in the media.
Though Muslim women face similar stigma in western society, Hussain believes young men are at a greater disadvantage when it comes to stereotyping and racism. Men, Hussain explains, are going through a “really interesting kind of period of crisis, this period of male redundancy”. He says he is working on a series on women titled Honest With You and wants to keep the two separate so that they have space for their own conversation.
The idea of conversations drove Hussain’s design of his current exhibit.
“I think the strength of portraiture is that when you walk in a space like this, the sitters are elevated and you question who am I looking at, why am I looking at them?” Hussain explains, gesturing to the framed faces that surround him. You can say it or you can keep it in your head, but what's key is that you've had a conversation. For Hussain, it is that power of portraiture that matters.
Hussain’s penchant for conversation and optimism belies his lived experience. He might have had trouble being accepted as a young brown, Muslim man in the UK, but he is by no means an introvert. About approaching people to photograph, Hussain says he realised there was a 10 to 30 second window in which he had to convince his subjects to pose while also putting them at ease.
“I used to stop them and say … I’m looking at the British Muslim experience. I’m sick and tired of labels. We are as British as anyone else.” Being honest helped.
And the men in his portraits have things to say about their appearance and it is not always about the colour of their skin.
Belonging, in fact, is not about the colour of one’s skin. When Hussain went to visit his mother’s hometown of Kotli in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as an adult, it felt like walking into someone else’s past.
Going to the world where his mother grew up, going through the corn fields where she used to run and retracing her footsteps made Hussain realize how different his life would have been if his parents had chosen to stay instead of moving to English. The thought left him feeling slightly angry.
He was also reminded very quickly that it wasn’t his country. One of his cousins explained that if he wanted something, he could get it from a tree while talking about the idea of how Azad Kashmir is not a capitalist society. The sound of it was amazing. “But that’s not yours,” he was immediately reminded by his cousin.
In England, Hussain was told he wasn’t British enough or Western enough. Back home, he was being told he was too British, too Western. Hussain was caught between two worlds, but he is not worried about fitting in anymore. “We are the hybrid. We are actually carving a new identity,” he says. But it’s not just about British men; it is an experience happening globally. Hussain’s work, in that regard, is also a comment on urban culture.
Hussain also believes the young men in his portraits have a right to be angry. “If you think about 9/11, it happened 17 years ago and you’ve got young men in their twenties, and all they’ve known is hatred,” he explains. What would that do to someone psychologically? It breaks you down.
But Hussain found some hope when 500 people come to the opening of the exhibition -- a lot of them being young British Asians in their early twenties: men and women who wanted to form and challenge the narrative.
He believes things are changing. In the last few years, the political process has been divisive. So perhaps society is far more prepared to have an honest conversation about learning to co-exist.
This story is part of a reporting project with the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at IBA and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, USA.