Mahtab Hussain’s photographs explore the critical question of identity among young working-class British Asian men.
You Get Me? addresses the contested political terrain of race and representation, respect and cultural difference.
The men portrayed in Hussain’s portraits identify as Muslim, and expressed that they felt culturally ridiculed by the constant flow of derogatory media representation of their lives.
The 24 portraits in the exhibition examine how the weight of masculinity impacts the subject’s sense of self, as they navigate the complex identity formations historically placed upon them.
Hussain photographed the series over a nine-year period in Birmingham – where he grew up – stopping individuals in the street and starting conversations as he took their portrait. He later expanded the project to London and Nottingham.
A photobook of You Get Me? was published by MACK in June to coincide with the exhibition. It can be purchased online via mackbooks.co.uk
Visit the project online at mahtabhussain.com
Written by Daniel Jewesbury
For many decades following Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947, the immigrants who arrived in Britain from the two new states were seen, by their hosts, as largely undifferentiated. Growing up in south London in the 1970s with an Indian mother, I learned fairly quickly that the word ‘Paki’ was not intended to convey any particularly nuanced religious, national or ethnic distinctions. But if it was an inexact term of abuse, then the inability on the part of those who used it to tell us all apart bred a similarly broad response. In the defence committees and anti-racist unions of the day, the word ‘black’ was adopted as a term under which all those experiencing British racism could gather, in order to organise a politics of solidarity and resistance.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, this ecumenical anti-racist solidarity was gradually eroded. Black and Asian groups began to insist on the need to define themselves according not to their shared experiences, but their difference. ‘Community leaders’ began to appear increasingly often in the media, not the young political leaders who had turned up trying to explain the reasons behind the sporadic unrest in the cities a few years previously, but religious elders, or sharply-dressed councillors with political ambitions; invariably, they broadcast appeals to young men with whom they had almost no contact to ‘see sense’ and stop behaving so disgracefully, and bringing shame on their communities. At a certain point, that notoriously poorly-defined bête noire, multiculturalism, became a word that was heard widely on TV and in the newspapers, its existence seen as the final confirmation that political correctness had, with terrifying inevitability, gone mad.
A number of different things took place which raised the prominence of Islam as a potential threat to the ‘values’ of western social-democratic capitalism around this time: the Iranian revolution; the Libyan embassy siege and the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher; the Palestinian intifada; the incomprehensible, unending war in Lebanon; the Rushdie fatwa; and a series of riots in towns like Oldham and Bradford. What’s widely known, but often not connected with these events, is that British culture and society was fragmenting more generally at this time – the 1980s were a famously divisive period, with increased class mobility for some being more than matched by a series of incursions against the power of the organised working class. Formerly socially cohesive groups disintegrated and turned against one another. And somewhere along the way, young men found that they were not ‘Asians’ or even ‘Pakis’ any more; from now on they were ‘Muslims’.
Islamophobia, then, did not begin in September 2001. Moreover, the political rhetoric required to justify a ‘war on terror’ had been in place in Israel, the US and Britain for many years; but until the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the ‘threat of terrorism’ lacked a single organising principle in the UK. The New Labour government wasted no time in using terrorism as a justification for a whole slew of new legislation; the Terrorism Act 2000 followed close behind the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. These were merely the first of a series of progressively more draconian, scaremongering pieces of legislation put on the statutes by New Labour’s bully-boy Home Secretaries.
The young men and boys in Mahtab Hussain’s portraits, perhaps the third or fourth generations of their families to live in in Birmingham 14, in Small Heath, or Sparkbrook, are the ones unwittingly circumscribed by this shabby history of British decline. Some of Hussain’s images might seem to attest to a willing separateness: a boy holding a small Pakistani flag, a tattered billboard showing a copy of the Qur’an. If these images seem to trouble some idea of ‘Britishness’ it’s probably only because that idea is so poorly-formed that we no longer know what it is. Union flags? Bibles? Premiere League football, with its cast of global acrobats? White vans? The more one tries to imagine it, the more it seems like a grotesque, self-parodying Martin Parr fantasyland.
Against this background, the subjects of Hussain’s portraits are attempting to make cultures of belonging for themselves, inflected by their backgrounds, their personal understanding of their faith, their awareness of what exactly their Britishness entails (and what it does not) and, moreover, who they aspire to be. These are men, and boys, from Pakistani, Muslim backgrounds, inventing a Britishness that is authentically theirs, on their terms. They are from their communities but not defined by them; and they are aware that, deep down, Britishness, of a kind that can never be questioned or which does not need some qualification, is perpetually being withheld from them. So theirs is an accommodation with a country and a society that repeatedly reminds them that they are ‘tolerated’; Hussain’s portraits catch this process of negotiation, of struggle to belong but not be subsumed, to be oneself for oneself. There might be a small measure of irony in some young Muslims seeming to turn to black culture after all this time – albeit the black culture of the US, inevitably viewed by white British society as intrinsically threatening or violent, rather than the politicised black culture of 1970s Britain; from ‘Black and Asian’ to ‘Muslim’ and straight on to ‘Gangsta’.
But in truth, despite the fears of their families, who see the young turning away from tradition and deference, towards one of the twin poles of ‘radicalism’ or ‘Westernisation’, these men are no more lost or unhomed than their white counterparts elsewhere in the inner city. The youth culture that we see in Hussain’s images is, if anything, remarkably familiar: a blend of consumerism, posturing, and the reinterpretation – but not the complete renunciation – of the traditions of one’s community. These are very British subjects after all.