In 2008, Mahtab Hussain was a Goldsmiths graduate working at the National Portrait Gallery. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of representation of the British Muslim community in the arts, he decided to start travelling back to Birmingham where he grew up, to make work that actually spoke to—as well as about—British Muslims.
Hussain's new book, You Get Me?, examines issues of masculinity and isolation within that community, and in a broader sense the issues of male redundancy in the working classes, and the psychological damage of sweeping media generalisations. I spoke to Hussain about being too "brown" for one community, too "fish and chips" for another; about the pervasiveness of hatred in the UK; and, above all, what it means to be a working class man in the Britain of 2017.
VICE: When you started this work, photographing young men in Birmingham, it wasn't people you knew from growing up there, it was a case of approaching strangers in the street?
Mahtab Hussain: Absolutely. When I'd left Birmingham eight years earlier, I cut all my ties and left friends behind. I totally disconnected. I'd found it really difficult being around some of my Asian friends—they were very negative about my wanting to move on or break out of that community.
That's a large part of the book's introduction, the difficulty you had growing up—being alienated not only in one, but two communities. Can you explain that a little more, and how it fed into this work?
I was born in Scotland, but we settled in Birmingham. My parents got divorced when I was about five. Up until then I had always been around Asian communities, but when they got divorced we were essentially kicked out of the community—I only came to understand that in my twenties.
My father moved to Druids Heath, which is a very white, very working class area on the edge of Birmingham. I lived in a tower block there from the age of seven, after two years with my mum, who had moved to Handsworth, a very black and Asian area. When I moved to Druids Heath, that was when racism came into my life.
The first day there, we were attacked by four or five kids with tree branches. I suffered intense racism there for about ten years, violent and abusive, being asked, "Why are you here?", being called ugly, being called a "fat Paki," being the butt of all the jokes. I hated being brown. I hated all this negative attention. And I tried to become westernised. I spoke English as well as I could, tried desperately to look more English.
Then you left Druids Heath for your mother's home?
My father was also incredibly abusive, so I left. I'd been in a tough school environment, and having a tough home-life with him. Looking back now, I don't really know how I survived it. I jumped ship, ran away from home and lived with my best friend Alan and his parents for six weeks before my mum found me. She hadn't seen me for ten years, but convinced me to move to Handsworth with her.
She realised I'd lost my mother tongue. She said, "You need to learn your culture and understand your roots," and she refused to speak to me in English, which in retrospect was amazing. She told me I needed to go somewhere with a lot of Pakistani and Muslim kids. "You will have a great time," she said. So I decided to go to Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, which had a great art and design department. I was so excited… then I walked into a canteen and it was full of Asians, and I stood out so badly.
The first thing they said to me was, "Whagwan," and I said, "Hello, how are you?" They said I was "too white", "too British", "too fish and chips"—and I said they were too black. I didn't get why they were gravitating toward black culture. It was too much to deal with. They could tell that I was not religious, and they wanted to get me back into it.
You say in the introduction you felt like you became a project for some of your friends?
Yeah, it was another world. I looked like them but I clearly wasn't. Then 9/11 happened while I was in my second year, and that amplified all this craziness. I did become a bit of a project; they were dragging me to Friday prayer, and I would reluctantly go. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just copying them. I felt very uncomfortable. They were smoking weed a lot, but they struggled with my openly drinking, working in bars. We clashed.
But that period did leave me really interested in why those guys felt the need to be so tough, to play these alpha male characters, that need to be feared or respected. I guess my father had that in him, but it was never a part of me. Around that time I was introduced to Robert Mapplethorpe's work, and specifically his work on the black male body and masculinity. I became fascinated by what it means to be a man.
That issue of masculinity is clearly key in the book. The majority of the portraits are hyper masculine, yet the quotes in the book betray degrees of uncertainty in these men.
There's a real pressure to be a certain way, and it's very difficult to be a gentle man. I think that's very much a working class thing. This is a book about working class men, essentially, and I think that feeling, that pressure, is universal. I would like to think that the work resonates across to other working class communities, to the black, or Hispanic communities.
It's about urban culture and the types of messages these young men have had over the years about how to hold themselves. I think men in some communities are going through a period of male redundancy, as women become more educated, want careers and no longer want to get married and so on. These guys are performing a type of masculinity that is dying.
The book is questioning that mind-set, but also celebrating it, allowing men to be powerful, and I think that is something that men are struggling with. I think feminism has, quite rightly, balanced things out, but I do think men are struggling—certainly in the Asian community, because they are the last to go through this adjustment.
On top of that pressure, of course,, there's the issue of media depictions of British Muslim men. The book's back cover is made up of headlines like "MUSLIM SCHOOLS BAN OUR CULTURE", or "MUSLIM THUGS BURN POPPIES". How does that post-9/11 media narrative play into all of this?
The psychological damage done to these guys needs to be talked about. 9/11 happened 17 years ago, yet constantly the press, or politicians, are asking, "Why are these guys so angry?" And you're like, come on! You have told these men that they are barbaric, that they beat their women, that they rape white women, that they want to kill everyone. And at the same time you don't present them in mainstream society or culture.
I've never seen myself on a billboard. I've never seen a model dressed the way these guys dress. I think the level of shit that's been built up—the narrative that we have about ourselves, which we have no control of—has left us fucking pissed off, and rightly so. I feel so invisible. That's why I became an artist. I wanted to represent this society in artistic space. When people from these communities came to my show, they were excited to see our brownness being shown and celebrated like this without the condescending waving of Union Jacks.
When you really think about what's happened over the last 17 years, or even before that with the Salman Rushdie affair, these guys—these communities—have been badly beaten.
You mention a lot of black artists, like Carrie Mae Weems, as influences. I assume that ties in to that shared motivation of making art that is representing people who don't have a visible profile in art or culture?
I studied post-colonialism in Art History at Goldsmiths. Here I was, looking at these black artists and cultural theorists, and yes, they were talking about the black experience, but that was also my experience. Repression, racism, gender politics. And it was that module which made me think: no one's really made art about the British-Asian experience. As I said, I had been saying to all my friends, "You are too black," but actually, at that point, I understood why they wanted to latch onto black culture; it resonated with them. They—black people in America, Britain, those artists I was studying—were from a marginalised community that had managed to find a voice which was political, relevant, justifiably angry and which resonated with those who were repressed and outside of the system. And that's incredibly sexy and relevant. Up to then I had felt like a fish out of water—an inner city brown boy, at Goldsmiths, hanging out with public school people. I was like, Shit, man, what am I doing here? But that module changed my life.
What's your feeling about the status of relations in the UK between the Muslim population and those outside it?
The Muslim community are angry. And people outside that community are also angry. You have hate on both sides. And I think now we are starting to see these awful acts of violence, terror, people spraying acid on each other. I think we have to be very careful… we have brought up a whole generation fuelled by hatred and focused on difference. Look at Brexit, look at what's happening in America. My dad and my grandfather spoke about racism. I am now 36. What the hell? Why am I here, still having to talk about these things?
How do you see art's role in breaking down these barriers?
I have always believed in the transformative qualities of art. I had a lot of support, I got mentors and Arts Council funding, all of which allowed me to continue the work. But at the same time, sadly, there was a lot of ghettoisation with my work. A lot of the time it was being pitched as "reportage"—no one would see it as fine art portraiture. I think, over the years, there have been artists trying to make this sort of work, but it's a real challenge. Part of that is to do with fear. Fear around talking about these issues. I do feel things are changing, but we will see. I'm excited. The work's being collected in museums, and that was really my main hope; I can now definitely say that we are part of the art-historical canon.
You Get Me? Is out soon on Mack Books.