Essay – Photomonitor – Coming out of the shadows

Essay – Photomonitor  – Coming out of the shadows

Written by Lucy Macmillan

Given such uninspiring backdrops as the deprived inner city streets of Birmingham’s Sparkbrook, Sparkhill, and Small Heath, it’s hard to believe that such prosaic settings could be the cradle from which an important piece of work has emerged, a work which offers its viewers challenging portraits of people most recently reviled by Western society. Mahtab Hussain boldly compels viewers to cast aside any possible prejudice as he presents a series of young British Asian men as they have never been perceived before, powerful yet fragile, confident yet unsure, determined yet so often irresolute. These men are caught between the dichotomy of East and West, yet appear to effortlessly fuse these seemingly contradictory and opposing forces to embody the seductive nature of Western liberalism on the one hand, and their community’s cultural and religious restraints on the other. The result of Hussain’s work, achieved over nine years of walking the streets, starting up conversations, of impromptu meals, impassioned debates and participation in prayer, is testament to his determination to introduce to the wider community a minority so clearly misunderstood and essentially at odds with itself.

So often the photography world is elated by images of stunning artwork whereby overwhelmingly the artist is white, their subject non-white, while both are engulfed within the context of third world deprivation. Arguably this creates an imbalance in the power structure so critical in contemporary portraiture, and a subconscious veneer of guilt, or more precisely, postcolonial guilt, thinly veils often astonishingly beautiful photography dulling the truth of the image, and with it unintentionally stifling the dignity of the sitter. Is this our modern concept of the exotic, a continued exploitation of otherness and its exquisiteness, nurtured over centuries, repeated time and again throughout the history of Western art, now unwittingly perpetuated by artists who exist among prevailing political and economic forces which maintain the status quo? Is this evidence through art, that colonialism was never expunged, just transformed into another guise? And therein lies the contradiction and complexity of Hussain’s practice, since with no such distant foreign lands available to him, these snatched, fleeting scenes are instantly recognisable throughout the Western urban world, and with a history and skin to match, his portraiture effortlessly exudes an exoticism by extolling the ordinary and exalting a raw truth. This clear re-appropriation of the accepted narrative, seen through the gaze of one of their own, subverts our idea of Orientalism in utterly seductive and enticing avant-garde work.

Unsurprisingly, Hussain’s interest in the employment of photography from the 19th Century onwards for anthropological purposes has had a profound effect upon his work. The photographic classification of people, which colonialism had made available to the burgeoning scientific endeavours of European powers, displayed sitters typically in traditional dress, occasionally in western attire, but overwhelmingly with blank, expressionless faces, using conventions which adopted a purely clinical approach. To underscore this denigration, the sitters’ personal names were frequently omitted, and instead descriptive commentary accompanied the photograph which effectively stripped them of their human identity even further. On two counts, he echoes this practise. Firstly, Hussain presents titles which are clear and unambiguous, and secondly, by withholding personal names, no one portrait takes precedence over another ensuring the sitters become representative of the community. In deploying what was unquestionably a clear assertion of colonial superiority, he has effectively subverted its original intentions by portraying a series of empowered sitters who exemplify a sophisticated, complex minority.

In a letter to scientist John Herschel, Julia Margaret Cameron wrote that she wished, “to secure for it (photography) the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty” (in Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work by Helmut Gernsheim, 1975, p.14). As such, Hussain’s work is a perfect example of her principle. Despite its topical nature, the work does not sit squarely in the documentary/photojournalistic camp, for ultimately its conception derives from pure subjectivity and an inspired imagination. Indeed, he positively challenges mainstream photojournalistic stories, whilst faithfully depicting his subjects within the limitless scope of artistic creativity as matters of composition, light and colour are meticulously explored and poetically expressed. In particular, Hussain’s use of shadow, which offers a palette of soft tones to complement darker skin, metaphorically alludes to his sitters’ societal status, for not only does it highlight their existence on the margins of society, it also emphasises the tenacious stereotypical beliefs that these men inhabit shady, potentially dangerous corners of our society.

Hussain’s methodology is unmistakably founded in the artistic tradition. Like a fine art artist whose preparation involves detailed sketching before commencing upon the final composition, so his process of interviewing and spending time with his sitters, symbolic of preparation, is essential before shooting the final piece. Another distinctive element of Hussain’s methodology is his ability to encourage his sitters to overtly express how they wish their portrait to embody their sentiments, aspirations and desires. Such collaboration allows sitters the opportunity to ‘own’ their portrait, an essential aspect of Hussain’s work given the fact his subject is routinely denied this opportunity by the wider world. This symbiotic relationship, which in no way defies artistic endeavour and subjectivity, empowers the sitter and allows the artist to artistically shape a narrative which challenges staunch preconceptions. Finally, this relationship extends to incorporate the spectator, generally a representative of the white middle class since they are most likely to patronise art institutions. And it is precisely this sector of society with whom he seeks to engage, since they are the least likely to come face-to face with his sitters; thus, repeatedly Hussain’s centrally placed sitters look out, locking their viewer’s steadfast gaze into a brief but palpable relationship which demands acknowledgment to the difficulties life presents them. What emerges is a carefully calibrated equilibrium between the three protagonists, a connection generally unachievable in reality.

Viewing the series as a whole, it is striking that with a few exceptions, he chooses to place the heads of his sitters high in the frame, centrally, and facing directly back at the viewer. This compositional device empowers the sitters as they are seen to absorb the entire work from a central position, preventing the audience from looking elsewhere; indeed, it is evocative of Tudor portrait sets which allowed British monarchs to adorn the long galleries of aristocratic homes, reminders of who was in charge, and the 17th Century Kit-cat Club set who championed the defenders of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is no surprise that Hussain’s practice pays homage to Old Master paintings given the fact his curriculum vitae recounts time spent at some of Britain’s great art institutions including, the National Portrait Gallery, London and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He has used this influence to great effect by immortalising his kings of the street who similarly pose in staunch defiance, a defiance bolstered further by Hussain’s use of expansive, larger than life size exhibition editions.

Given his innate perception of the community in which he was raised, Hussain offers his audience a window into a secluded world from the critical perspective of an entire generation. His inclusion of very young boys, to those bridging the delicate, adolescent gap and finally the matured young men, offers a pictorial arch of time. The inquisitive and occasionally anxious expressions of the young boys morph into ostensibly confident countenances worn by those increasingly experienced in the certainties of life, well-rehearsed in digging emotions deep. In offering the viewer a spectrum of ages, Hussain essentially dissects the community through variety, giving definition to a group frequently projected into society’s visceral consciousness as a homogenised minority. Our initial engagement with these portraits may confirm so much of what has been written and discussed about these young men, that they are misguided, troubled, dangerous even. It’s unavoidable given the unstoppable torrent of negative, mainstream sentiments which proliferate in an all-encompassing media. And yet, it is undeniable that these faces, through a range of ages, infer hints of fragility, inhibition and deeper still, a stifling personal confusion which successfully represses all else.

It is through this trajectory of ages that Hussain captures the rapidly shifting ideals of what it means to be a man through the eyes of his sitters, a topic to which he regularly returns. As masculinity in the Western modern world acquires increasingly nuanced characteristics, it is evident from the series that countless influences are at play, most strikingly perhaps is that which has arisen from American black hip-hop culture. Undoubtedly, the overwhelming appeal of this movement lies in its emergence as a direct consequence of racial suppression and a distinctly anti-establishment position, both hugely appealing for marginalized young men who readily absorb its prevailing characteristics into the canon of street style, as exemplified in illus. 11 and 81. These two portraits, themselves visual odes to this overtly seductive urban movement, reveal the essence of masculinity and resistance as the sitters balance a duality of ostentatious assertiveness with unequivocal poise. Any visible association with their faith is notably absent, indeed these sitters could easily be considered advocates for the values and cherished freedoms upheld by the West, and yet both young men will tell you first and foremost that they are Muslim, and that their loyalty is to Allah, their faith and family.

Interconnected with this influence of black culture is the emergence of the ‘metrosexual’ man. Meticulously groomed, often with plucked eyebrows, always with immaculate hairstyles and sophisticated dress sense, this very particular aspect of modern masculinity is pertinently portrayed in a number of portraits which vibrantly reveal conspicuously perfected appearances coupled with unadulterated extravagance. Arguably, not only does this imbue these men with much needed pride, but such overtly decorative displays of masculinity function as a disguise to neutralise any possible exposure of their heritage, since such contrived ways of dressing are utterly alien and at odds with traditional attire.

Predictably, perhaps, as one of the most elementary characterisations of masculinity, the popularity of bodybuilding has been keenly adopted by these young British men. This very conventional notion of masculinity is portrayed appositely in ill. 59, which reveals a sitter sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with a golden gun as his physicality literally consumes the frame. Here is the very embodiment of strength, perfected through dedication, pain and endurance, metaphorically defining the efforts taken by his community as they strive to overcome their daily struggles. Initially it is easy to argue that suppression and intimidation by a mistrustful society on the one hand and Western male redundancy alongside the gradual liberalisation of women on the other, compel these men to present themselves as powerhouses of strength, however, innate forces are also equally determinant. Whilst culturally it is expected that men should assume a dominant role in the home, traditional ideals surrounding masculinity are immediately divergent to opinions of manhood held in the West. Indeed, in many Asian countries there is unabashed sensual connections between men who habitually hold hands, kiss and embrace in public and male seniority and wisdom is upheld and placed at the very pinnacle of society’s social pyramid. Yet despite these inherent conventions of what is perceived to be the accepted and traditional role for a man, the pressures of living as a minority within a highly suspicious wider society has seen the community unwittingly encourage what Hussain refers to as a ‘performance of masculinity’. Supported by the collective whole, these men’s ‘performance’, their affectation and brazen bravado in eagerness to display their might, is exclusively played out on the streets. To emphasise this prevailing social construct, he explicitly presents his sitters outside, since any natural ‘performance’ would be entirely contrived in a photographic studio or the confines of a home. The only portrait in the series which breaks this mould is of a sleeping teenager delicately curled up on a sofa, ill.67, intimately exposing a much-guarded fragility and vulnerability. Hussain’s environments, which bear all the depressing hallmarks of ghettoization, are in every sense a stage both literally and figuratively.

This visual analysis of masculinity lies at the very heart of his work, and by extension, the internal conflict with which these young men emotionally wrestle, as they attempt to determine their identity amid efforts by mainstream media to shroud them under a persistent veil of prejudice. The imposition of these wildly conflicting influences is perfectly conveyed in ill. 75. Here, the spectator is presented very directly with a sitter whose ethereal quality seems to accentuate his more earthly, materialistic concerns, for the suggestion of a diamond earring, made indistinct by the blurred background, and his street style hair cut unmistakably indicate a subtle compliance with the notions of Western masculinity. To counter this, any political and religious affiliations are pointedly represented by the shemagh around his shoulders signalling this man to be resolutely symbolic of the modern hybrid of East meeting West. Arguably, these men are confused, yet what emerges from Hussain’s portraiture is that despite the hugely divergent identities of masculinity which abound, these young men are merging them to varying degrees with established ideals of faith and cultural practises, and in doing so, inadvertently embody an entirely new interpretation of manhood.

Mahtab Hussain has brought us face-to-face with a growing percentage of Britain’s youth who essentially exist as segregated hybrids, hybrids who are incessantly forced to feel alien and divorced from Britain and its future. Examining this alienation, he has chosen a hugely relevant title, You Get Me?, for not only does it highlight the repetitive figure of speech dropped into most conversations held between the sitters, but crucially, it resonates with profound feelings of disaffection. Viewing such precisely constructed portraiture, the audience is challenged to give answers to virtually audible questions which emanate from the sitters, “Do you understand me, my frustration, my feelings of injustice, that I walk a tightrope daily as I’m forced to confront, repeal and finally accept the characteristics assigned to me by western society; you get me?”

The strength of Hussain’s work lies in his ability to present us with pressing and topical themes of isolation, race and sexuality through the eyes of men whose demonization all too often overshadows any similarities which could be forged with the wider community. With such immediate intimacy, these portraits offer us a unique opportunity for they vividly present the audience with a rare insight into the lives of a marginalised, increasingly ousted minority. Our ingrained mistrust of each other surely stems from the absence of a shared historical narrative, a mutual story through which society is bound over centuries and which allows the tacit understanding of collective identity to emerge. The accepted resolute discord between East and West is clear in the work too, yet there is an inevitable fusion at play, a fusion which Hussain allegorically presents to us – for the youth of today are unwittingly, and undoubtedly from a confused personal perspective, aligning themselves with an increasingly shared global history, and You Get Me? perfectly illustrates the frontier of this nascent identity.