What does it mean to be a Muslim man in Britain today? It’s a question with not one answer but as many as there are male Muslim voices from North to South and all the villages, towns and cities in between. Photographer Mahtab Hussain began documenting the faces of working class Muslim men on the streets in Birmingham, where he grew up, back in 2008. Nine years on, the project has grown into a complex visual portrait of the British Muslim male experience in not only Birmingham, but Nottingham and London too.
As Mahtab prepares to share the faces of that experience with the world via You Get Me?, an exhibition at Shoreditch gallery Autograph ABP and a book published by Mack, we caught up with the photographer to find out more about the story behind the images.
You Get Me? took nine years to make. Why did the story demand a duration piece of work?
It took nine years to make, with many moments of intensity as well as times of reflection to understand what it was I was making and what I wanted to say. I started making the work in 2008, but the idea came to me five years earlier in 2003. I was 22 at the time and in my second year at Goldsmiths College studying History of Art when the lightbulb moment occurred. I was taking a module titled Postcolonial Studies which introduced me to black artists and theorists who analysed and responded to themes around identity politics, race, gender, ethnicity and difference. I remember thinking how no one was making work about the British Asian experience. It was only two years after 9/11. Everything I was hearing and reading at the time was not really reflecting honestly the difficulties and failings of society when it came to issues around belonging, homeland and that dreaded word multiculturalism. But like I said, it took another five years before I picked up my camera and began making You Get Me?
Why the focus on specifically Asian young men?
I feel there is a lot said about Asian men but it never really comes from us directly, so I wanted to help change this. I wanted to articulate the complexities of British Asian life, specifically Muslims’ life, so that society could begin to have an honest conversation about the many layers of identity formations. As an artist, I am fully aware of the power of art, and museums and galleries are safe and sophisticated spaces to talk about the nuances of life – I wanted to see the community I came from reflected in these spaces too. I loved visiting galleries and museums, have done so from an early age when my parents would take me, it had a very real effect on me. When I lived in London, I was constantly visiting exhibitions but struggled to find work that reflected my experiences as a British Asian; it was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was invisible in these spaces, spaces that I love and hold so dear in my life. I thought I would find artists who were discussing the complexities of British Asians while working in a museum environment, but shockingly never did, so this was a major factor in developing my practice, to be part of the art historical narrative, to be part of the weighty Western art canon.
Where were the images taken?
I was actually working at the National Portrait Gallery in London at the time, so I used to go back to Birmingham at weekends, and then holiday time, staying at my mother’s house. In 2010, I decided to jump ship and try and make a go of my art practice, from there I developed my critical thinking around the series and then later, won awards, commissions, funding which allowed me to continue making work and build the series in Nottingham and London. However, the majority of the work that is in You Get Me? has been made in Birmingham.
What shifts did you see in the identity of working class Asian men over the nine years?
Their identity really has not changed, but I would say that their Islamic identity has become stronger and I think this is due to migration of fellow Muslims from other countries, places like Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who have brought over their Islamic identity to Britain and the idea of being a proud Muslim. The young men are now growing their beards too, something that was not so prevalent back then.
But deep down their sense of self has not really moved beyond the idea of being the victim. The hardest thing for me was to listen to what they had to say. Time and time again I heard how difficult their lives were, how misunderstood they were, and how angry they were with the media, the politicians and the press. How they were tired of continually being asked about their identity and proving how British they were, while at the same time being told how un-British they are. When I look back now, it was a tough journey to make this work and I too had many dark moments, it was hard to deal with sometimes, but what was really interesting was that even though some of these men talked about the struggles, their lives were actually manageable – and crucially, it was never about them as individuals, it was about “we”, it was “us”, they talked about the struggle as a collective, they were carrying the burden of the global Muslim experience.
9/11 happened in 2001, that was 17 years ago. Muslims have had to endure a plethora of attacks from the media and government since then. I was lucky to be born at a time when negative Muslim news did not fill our news channels, and I often think about how the youth today cope with the pressures of the media and exist in political environment which they feel is weighted against them. It must be so difficult to be born into a world that actively tells you you do not belong, that inherently you are a problem and danger to wider society.
However, despite all I heard, I didn’t want to make portraits that made you to feel sorry for these young men. I wanted to show that despite the pressures, these men have still found a way to hold themselves up as proud and dignified people, albeit with complex and often conflicting identities.
You Get Me? is at Autograph ABP, Shoreditch from today until 1 July.