You Get Me? XXY in Conversation with Artist Mahtab Hussain

You Get Me? XXY in Conversation with Artist Mahtab Hussain

Walking past an exhibition which featured faces similar to mine, I stopped in my tracks, knowing I had to sit down with artist Mahtab Hussain. His exhibition “You Get Me?” encapsulates young, Muslim men in Britain of the past decade. We spoke about the trouble with masculinity globally, the disconnect of identities in South Asian communities and genuine representation.

Tahmina Begum: As “You Get Me?” began in 2008 – what changes have you seen with the photographs you captured of Muslim men from then until now?

Mahtab Hussain: I’ve noticed that people are starting to take control of their own narrative. Over the last 60 years we have been labelled in so many ways. You were coloured, black, a Paki, a Pakistani or Bengali, but since the Salman Rushdie affair, we are now ‘Muslims’. Now everyone is savvier with regards to their own image and I think this is due to technology, which has allowed a greater voice, a stronger voice, to make people aware.

We need to stand up and represent ourselves as I still feel as though the Asian male is struggling with his identity and masculinity. That they are still going through this process of trying to figure out who they are in a world that tells them they barbaric, they are terrorists, they are sympathisers; the pressure is still there.

And these millennials, as they like to call themselves, I am in awe of them. Quite a few of them showed up to the opening and I met a lot of edgy Muslims – men and women – who were of the younger generation and were politically active but still finding themselves in the West.

TB: What do you think is the biggest halt in Southern Asian and Muslim men finding their identity?

MH: I think the biggest issue is the shame. If you really strip it back – we all come from humble beginnings. For example, my grandparents were part of this small village and lived essentially in mud houses. They were subjected to post-colonialism and imperialist guilt, and so when Asian people migrated to the western world they brought with them this “you are below us” idea. I think there’s a great deal of being ashamed of being Asian and I want to challenge this.

Our grandparents tried to get on with their lives, telling us: just put your head down, don’t mess around and you will be okay, but slowly we have realised that we actually won’t, so we need stand up and be counted.

In the 1970s to 1980s, “paki-bashing” was relevant and there is a lot of anger that has not been resolved. And I keep saying this, representation is so important. Asian and Muslim people have been in the UK for over two hundred years and they are still not a part of mainstream society. I can’t see myself on a billboard or a fashion spread. And now you have faces like Riz Ahmed and Guz Khan and you have the BBC Asian Network but that’s still such a small minority.I want Asian and Muslim people to become a part of mainstream culture, so much so that it becomes normalised.

There are so many complex layers to being a young Muslim man; you can be the strong and masculine man or the more effeminate Muslim man, so it is about articulating these different masculine identities.

TB: When I walked around your exhibition yesterday, the strong feeling I got was that when you photographed these young Muslim boys, they were finally getting what they wanted voicing and it was not gimmicky or inauthentic. And though one of the major points to your exhibition was to show there wasn’t one way of being a Muslim man in Britain – what do you feel was the most common statement or story said amongst those you shot?

MH: The main idea was that they were being victimised all the time. There was labelling on these young men and boys. The very idea that they did not feel welcome in the UK, in “Great Britain”, in western society, in general. It’s quite sad really.

If you really believe that, then you end up thinking, what’s the point of assimilating myself, involving myself in society. I might as well stay in my community and do my own thing. It is almost like they give up.

I really want to talk about the fact that we are the victims here. We are painted as the instigators of violence when really we are the ones going through the violence. It looks like everyone is against us; some people may not have experienced direct racism in their lives but the stuff that these young men hear in the papers, in speeches – with regards to government policies – it all has an effect on their sense of well-being.

We need to shift the narrative so it shows that we are the abused not the abusers. Once we look at the patterns of abuse – we start to see the bigger picture.

Some people start to shut down, they go back to their religion because that’s where they find comfort. Some get angry and sometimes even go to the extreme, and others become so lost within the community and don’t know how to use that positively. Or others try to hate themselves so that they don’t even recognise themselves anymore. There are so many patterns, this is what we need to be discussing. The government and the press always ask that question: why do Muslim men feel like this and do these things? Well let’s talk about the psychological abuse that they have been subject to.

This isn’t the society’s fault, but the product of our powers to be helping articulate a narrative to young Muslim men of “we don’t want you”. This is the government and the biased media’s fault for churning out a narrative for a certain gain.

TB: Completely. As a writer, in my teens, I remember trying not to be that Asian writer who just wrote about race – but I can not – it’s the elephant in the room.

MH: I have friends who are artists and are like “Oh you’re doing stuff on brown people”. Look, I don’t have the luxury of making work about abstract arts. Maybe in time, I will create something more conceptual but no one is doing this. The most wonderful thing about a gallery space is that you are allowed to discuss this. I don’t know if you saw this – but research showed that museums and galleries were voted most trusted sources over newspapers and magazines.

TB: Discussing authenticity, how did you make sure the photographs, the quotes, the exhibition, stay authentic and not contrived?

MH: Artistically, I wanted to give a lot of control to the sitters and empower them. I worked at the National Portrait Gallery for a few years and it’s probably one of the only places where the sitter comes before the artist in the caption.

At first, I started with film but then when I moved to digital, it was a three-way relationship between the artist, sitter and spectator that I wanted to challenge. After we steered away from the Zoolander poses, I connected with the sitters and formed a real relationship. They would talk about very dark stuff such as the poverty they grew up in or the violence and hate they have experienced. Ideas of having to be a tough man, being British, but being told you were not British at the same time. I too had to shake my own bias of my community in order to understand how these men were growing up in these spaces.

Despite it all, I wanted to convey that they are noble, proud citizens. They are British, but the sad reality is that not all want to accept this part of British culture.

I’m finally represented in a space where I was invisible. When I was working at the National Portrait Gallery, I was trying to find artists but no one was doing projects like this and those who were doing it were falling into documentaries and ghettoising the community. I was a bit pig-headed, I wanted the sitters to emulate 17th-century portraits where the gaze is centralised directly at you; there is a great sense of power which one is able to exude. The size of the work was really important too, to crystallize the idea that these were fine art portraits. I spent time in New York working at Light Work with John Manion, a master printer. I wanted the work to be a beautiful object, something you could fall in love with, to show that we are beautiful brown men, to envy our sense of power and beauty, and our grace.

I also wanted to talk about the black experience and how I feel as though it is the only marginalised community which has found a voice, through people like Mohammed Ali and Malcolm X who were both incredibly articulate, powerful and brave. They challenged white supremacy, gathered collective voices and then took on Islam too, so in a way the Asian male felt connected to the black experience as these two men helped give us a voice too. I had a similar experience too, looking at the black experience in art to find my voice. It made me start to wonder after my second year at Goldsmiths University when I was studying post-colonialism, why no one was doing this work with the Asian community.

TB: As different as it was to walk into an exhibition with Southern Asian men plastered on the walls, I was still in a room full of white people. I’m wondering – did you do it for these men to feel represented or for others to be educated on the topic?

MH: Both, equally for both. A lot of it was on challenging the narrative that Asians don’t go to museums or galleries. And I’ve always said, put something on that’s relevant – which I have done in the past and brought in audiences they said were hard to reach – make them feel connected and feel as though they can say something about it.

I have had to challenge spaces that were offered to me too, whether it was a gallery giving me exhibition space near the toilets, or even between galleries, but I had to say no way I am doing that.

It’s also about educating the widening society. Sometimes when I show these photographs people say: “Really, do they want to be British?” and I think, how can you not see it? They are trying to be as westernised as possible in their words, their style, their clothes. We are wearing your brands but we are never part of them.

But for me the series is not just about Muslim men but articulating the crisis towards masculinity in general, about working class men globally.

TB: Was there a standout person or story?

MH: The edit is actually so small compared to the work I made. I feel hugely connected with each and every one. I can remember the conversation when I look at the pictures, what I was feeling, their stories. I don’t have a stand alone – I am just very proud that it’s hopefully gaining the recognition it deserves. Let’s not apologise, let’s celebrate the fact that we are angry, we have every right to be pissed off.


Interviewed and written by Tahmina Begum,

CEO & Editor-in-Chief

“You Get Me?” is a free exhibition currently in Autograph ABP until the 1st July 2017.

Visuals courtesy of Autograph ABP and Mahtab Hussain