December 12th, 2017
You Get Me?
Mahtab Hussain’s tender portraits question the image of South Asian Muslim men in Britain.
By David Campany
Xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment helped drive the momentum behind the U.K.’s June 2016 vote in favor of Brexit. How, then, can British artists create counternarratives that offer nuanced representations of unfairly maligned populations? Mahtab Hussain, a British photographer, has recently created a visual record of his community, which has been neglected by the art establishment and media alike. Recently published in the monograph You Get Me?, Hussain’s series features emotionally layered portraits of young South Asian Muslim boys and men, and often examines the performance of masculinity. The book’s title references the trend for British Asian men to identify with black urban experience. As Hussain writes, “The phrase You Get Me? also embodies it all. It can be seen as aggressive and confrontational, yet it expresses a glimmer of vulnerability too, that uncertainty when voicing one’s thoughts and opinions, asking the real question behind it all: Do you understand me?”
David Campany: Mahtab, you’ve just published the book You Get Me? with MACK. I’ve heard it was a long time coming. How and where did this project begin? I guess it’s tied very closely to the story of your own youth?
Mahtab Hussain: My identity as a young British Pakistani boy was never in question. Until the age of seven, I was oblivious to race, class, and ideals of difference. Although I was conscious of racial violence and tension between whites and blacks, my father was very open about talking through his experiences, which helped me to understand, to an extent. But, crucially, I was never directly affected. I went to school surrounded by others like me, a mix of ethnicities—Indian and Pakistan—and where we were the majority. And then it all changed. My parents divorced when I was six. This forced not only a family separation, but also a community separation too, as we were essentially ostracized. My father moved to Druids Heath in Birmingham, a very poor, white, working-class community, and my mother to Handsworth, which had a predominately black and Indian demographic.
Living with my father in Druids Heath thrust racism directly into my life. My brother and I were the only British Pakistani boys at the local Catholic school. Our first day was met with violence and racial remarks, and it was the first time the word “Paki” was directed at me. Questions were asked: “When would I go home? Why had I come here?” Questions that I had never thought about before, about my race, class, and culture. We were always looked upon as a problem, or at least positioned in a place of difference. It was obvious to me then that my identity was under threat, and for ten years I hated being brown—this color that brought unwanted, often violent attention.
Campany: When did photography begin to interest you?
Hussain: Well, truly, at seventeen. I decided to live with my mother and deliberately enrolled at Joseph Chamberlain College (the British equivalent to American high school), which had a predominately Pakistani intake, to study photography. On my first day there, I was confronted with another form of discrimination. This time I was ridiculed not for my skin color, but for my attitude, personality, even culture. I was told I was too white, I was “fish and chips,” a “John,” I spoke too gently, too posh, like a white boy. I retaliated saying they were too black, and it was at the college that I first heard the phrase “wagwan,” Jamaican slang for “What’s going on?” It staggered me that for ten years I battled with my own identity crisis and continue to do so. My contemporaries were undergoing the same crisis. I regret now never turning my camera on my friends at college, but it was a subject too close at hand. And even at this stage in my life, I was still very much ashamed of being a “Paki” and all the stereotypes that came with that name.
Campany: But somehow you wanted to become a photographic artist . . .
Hussain: The idea of becoming an artist came as an undergraduate at Goldsmiths College in London, studying for a degree in History of Art during my second year. I had chosen to study postcolonialism, and this introduced me to black artists who analyzed and responded to the cultural legacies of colonialism, racism, class, and gender. Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Carrie Mae Weems, Sonia Boyce, Lorna Simpson, and cultural theorists like Stuart Hall, Edward Said, and Frantz Fanon. They turned my world on its head, forcing me to question the absence of Asian/brown artists, a voice was missing in art history.
All this ignited a deep-rooted passion. I felt connected not only to the work which these extraordinary artists were making, but also to the historical narrative they were exploring and dissecting. In other words, I experienced the transformative possibilities of art. I started to think about my experiences as a child and what identity really meant to me, and how complex this concept was for many British Asians. I wanted to create a visual history about my identity and community, a community which had seemingly been forgotten by the art establishment. That was in 2002. It took me five years, however, before I ventured back into photography, and inevitably my first series would directly address identity politics, race, class and gender. That project became known as You Get Me?
Campany: One can say to oneself: “I’m going to directly address identity politics, race, class and gender.” But in practice what did that mean for you? How did the images come about? What were you looking for in this series? Did you know straight away how to approach it photographically?
Hussain: I wanted to make a body of work that countered the narrative that I have been fed over the last twenty years by external forces. I wanted to show the complexity of the community, their humanity, their struggle in trying to find their sense of self in a world that actively tells them that they do not belong—a world that also asks them who they are, while comparing their differences. The men in my series are from working-class backgrounds. Some even see themselves as a subclass. This is what I mean by identity politics—visually articulating how these men are defining themselves and why. Race is important here, too, as the series begins to ask the question about what the audience is seeing. Certain portraits allow the viewer to gaze upon them, while others challenge what they are looking at. Do you see them as simply men? Are they British men? Asian men? Muslim men? I guess at the beginning I was looking for all the stereotypes in my head: the boy with the dog, the man in the car, the thuggish looking chap, the gangster wannabe, the man smoking the joint. I was collecting these characters.
I had a strong idea as to how I wanted to present my work. At the time, I was working at the National Portrait Gallery and was heavily influenced, in particular, by seventeenth-century court and society paintings. It was the gaze that I was drawn to, that direct look at the audience. For me, that was power in its purest sense, knowing that someone was going to look at you, judge you, but you too were able to judge them. So, their gaze was important, and I often asked my sitters the question, “How do you want to be seen?” That is how I began to make the work. I walked the streets looking for striking individuals. It could be the way they walked, a piece of clothing that I liked. There had to be this level of attraction. All the men in the series have a level of beauty, and this was important to me, too.
Campany: These portraits are horizontal.
Hussain: I deliberately framed all the work in a landscape format for many reasons. I wanted to get close while being able to include some of the environment. But I also wanted to make a comment on advertising campaigns, the billboards, television, and computers screens—formats that are filled with visions of male beauty, with those who belong and own such spaces—ideas around representation, or the lack of it, and the importance of seeing yourself reflected in society. The work then moves beyond the narrative of the disenfranchised youth. It becomes an enquiry into male beauty, masculinity that visually articulates how these men are defining themselves as men to each other and to a wider society. When I look back at the portraits, I wonder what masculinity would look like in their ancestral homes. So, in a sense this performance of masculinity, male peacocking even, has a strong cultural influence from British/Western/Urban culture.
Campany: I’m struck by the fine balance in the portraits between confidence and vulnerability. Between self-assertion and inner complexity. You mentioned that there had to be something outward that first attracted you to photograph each man. But you’re going beyond that, getting to that place where we feel that outward appearance can never quite carry inner complexity. Is this how you see it?
Hussain: Yes, exactly. I feel there is a very fine balance between external confidence and inner vulnerability; the outward appearance is a type of performance, acted out in public environments, on the streets—bravado at its best. The environment here is key. I firmly believe the types of portraits made in You Get Me? would be completely different in a studio setting, too constricting for the sitter to perform or magnify this outward appearance, or subjectively exude different meanings based around pride, success, uncertainty, or fear. What is interesting is that there are very few portraits made indoors, or in domestic environments, places which may have given rise to a greater show of vulnerability. In order for that to be truly articulated, it was vital to include interviews alongside the portraits. I wanted to address the challenge of navigating dual identities, whether social, religious, or ego-related, dealing with hate, violence, or stereotyping. On top of all that, these people are also having to navigate what it means to be a man, not only in their community, but also within the rapidly changing modern Western world.
Campany: Yes, it is really a rich and complex combination of images and words. At what point did You Get Me? begin to take on this form?
Hussain: In order to make the work I had to engage in conversation, which was part of the process of gaining trust in order to make the portraits. I really enjoyed these exchanges. However, it was in 2010 that the idea of including these voices came to me. I say came to me, but actually I was asked by various curators, directors, and picture editors if I had interviewed the sitters. At the time, I was a little reluctant to interview the sitters because I wanted to position the work as fine art portraiture. I felt if I included their voices it would start to ghettoize and position the work as documentary. But I guess this thought is just a hangover of previous work that I have seen and did not want to replicate. I also did not want people to feel sorry for these men, as often the conversations were very dark. I realize now how important it was to include these statements: it helped inform the work but also empowered the community, by retaking control of their narrative.
Campany: The portraits certainly become much richer when seen in the light of the various voices in the book. All portraits are inevitably ambiguous things, as the title of your book suggests. “Getting” a person through a two-dimensional image of their momentary outward appearance to a camera is always so fraught and, in a way, it seems to me this is a large part of what your project is about. But I wonder if the “me” of the title also refers to the idea that the portraits might amount to clues about the photographer who made them. That is, you, Mahtab. And if this is autobiographical, what kind of self-portrayal is it?
Hussain: Yes, it is difficult to define a person by their portraits alone. It is an impossible task. However, my intention was not to collect individual portraits, but to build a body of work that represents the community through a collective narrative. When making the portraits of these men, I never felt it was fraught as I fully immersed myself as one of them. Their words echoed the voices I had heard all around me as I was growing up. So, yes, in a way you are right that in part this project is autobiographical and the “me” sits squarely to represent this in my work. I feel in an abstract way they are all self-portraits because I am reflecting upon my community. I have felt that real art comes from within, and can then serve a bigger purpose. When I started the project, I was trying to discover my identity, where I belonged in my own community and in a wider society. In the end, I realized that it’s not something that can be arrived at easily. It is a journey that we are all on. I’m just attempting to reflect upon where we currently stand. You get me?
Campany: I get you. In many ways, the richness of the book is in the nuances. There are no specific pairings of images with words, so the reader/viewer is left to piece the puzzle together, and not all the pieces are there. It’s a community with all the richness and contradictions of any community. For example, there’s quite a range of views in the book around masculinity, sexuality, power, belonging, and integration. How much of an eye did you have to keep on the balance of those views as you brought the book together?
Hussain: I did not put too much pressure on myself when I was making the work. It was really about trying to build a color palette so that when it came to editing the book and exhibition there would be enough material to play with. Each portrait embodies all those elements or views you speak of, but the book has also been broken down subtly into small chapters to reflect specific issues. I left the work for about a year or two in order for it to settle.
At this stage Michael Mack, my publisher, saw the series, and as I was showing it and talking to him about the work, I felt very uncomfortable. You see, the series at that point included environmental details, broken sofas, graffiti tags “repping” various postcodes, dirt on the street, and deprived areas. However, I was talking about power, pride, noble sitters who should be envied for their strength and beauty, so the sequence as it existed seemed to be jarring, and made you feel sorry for the community rather than wanting to connect with them. I remember calling Michael and telling him that I wanted to remove these pieces for that very reason, and he paused for a moment and said, “I agree, you’ve made a very wise decision.” It was great to have Michael truly understand a body of work that took a very long time for people to comprehend and see exactly what I was trying to achieve.
David Campany is a writer, curator, and artist based in London.
You Get Me? was published in 2017 by MACK.