Mahtab Hussain’s tender portraits peel back the layers of British Asian masculinity

© Mahtab Hussain

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Stepping into East London’s Autograph Gallery for Mahtab Hussain’s You Get Me? exhibition, you find yourself staring at the faces of 25 beautiful men and boys. An almost tangible quality of masculinity, boldness and bravado pulsates from the portraits adorning the walls. Each subject is captured in a particular moment of everyday life – a boy celebrates the last day of school, another is showing off the patterns cut into his hair and one young man is smoking a joint. But what is it about these images that we can’t tear our eyes away from?

It takes a few minutes to grasp that these images are both familiar and unfamiliar. These arresting portraits are of young British Asian men and boys who identify as Muslim. Embedded in the social fabric of urban life, we see them every day, treading the same pavements. But these men and boys rarely see themselves reflected in the pages of magazines, on billboards or on TV. This segment of our society is rarely presented to us like this – honestly, respectfully and without sensationalism.

Mahtab Hussain’s work is the product of ten years spent diligently lensing the British Asian community of which he is a product. Growing up British Pakistani in Birmingham, Hussain struggled with his own identity, never feeling as though he fitted with one cultural group. “The white kids would call me ‘Paki’ and ask me when I was going home,” he tells me. “The Asian guys were like, ‘Where’ve you come from? You look like us but you’re English.’ I was being called ‘coconut’ or ‘bounty’.”

Hussain then moved to London, where he studied History of Art at Goldsmiths and was introduced to the ideas of black academics Frantz Fanon and Stuart Hall. “I just thought, ‘Oh my God. Why isn’t anyone making work about British Asians?” he remembers. “I went home and wrote on a piece of paper that I wanted to be the artist to do this.” Five years working in galleries brought Hussain to the feeling that he was “invisible” in the art surrounding him. “I decided to do it myself. I was like, ‘Fuck this. I’m just going to give it a go.’”

And so, Hussain returned to the community he left. Initially photographing British Asians in Birmingham, he went on to lens the shared experience of young men across the country. For Hussain, it was a rediscovery of his own community and a way to understand who these men – British Asian, working class and Muslim – really were. “I would say to them, ‘Aren’t you sick and tired of being labelled a terrorist and told this country isn’t yours? The media is painting us as this barbaric and violent community. I need your help to change this narrative’.” It’s an approach we desperately need and, as Hussain says, respect and understanding is essential in the context of widespread prejudice. “The conversation is right for now – with Trump and Brexit, the politics of hate and divide and where our society is going, we are ready for this conversation.”

Those questions of assimilation and identity are embodied in the exhibition with the half statement, half question, “You get me?” – which is repeated over and over again by those sitting for portraits. “’You get me?’ It’s forceful, but at the same time, it’s showing fragility and vulnerability,” Hussain explains. “They’d make a strong statement and then say, ‘You get me?’ They were asking, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’”

© Mahtab Hussain

As the artist says, the three-word phrase is also street slang. It’s strongly associated with black culture, raising interesting questions about how these young men choose to form the multiple layers of their identities. Throughout the work, we see them in flaunt a style that’s rooted in hip-hop culture. “Some people don’t want to be considered too westernised,” Hussain says. “So why wouldn’t they assimilate towards the black community who are powerful, who have a voice and are sexy?” There’s an image, for example, of an Afghan boy wearing an adidas tracksuit and gripping a gold chain in his teeth. He’s cocky, almost aggressive, embracing a certain western ideal of masculinity – something Hussain wanted to unpick. “I asked him where his style was from and he said ‘It’s Muslim style.’ I was like, ‘Are you serious? This is American hip-hop culture.’ He was like, ‘No it’s not. This is Muslim style; it’s my style.’ It shows how much we’ve embraced certain styles as our own.”

You Get Me? takes important steps in representing these boys and men in mainstream society, while peeling back complex issues of race, culture, and religion. “There’s a comment on male beauty and who gets seen as beautiful and who gets represented. I’m trying to do it in the most poetic and beautiful way possible,” the artist explains. “We’re talking about representation, not diversity. Representation is not an added extra; it’s not a frill. It’s absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture.”

Among the rows of faces in You Get Me?, one picture is different from all the others: the sleeping boy. Caught in slumber, his torso bare, he’s the epitome of peacefulness and vulnerability. We don’t know anything about him. He’s a blank canvas, ready to take on an identity when he wakes – will he don the adidas tracksuit? The school uniform? The dandy’s three-piece? “It’s a really calm, intimate portrait,” explains Hussain. “You realise all this male bravado is just a performance. They are just young boys or men trying to figure out who they are.”

You Get Me? runs at Autograph ABP, London, until 1 July

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