Mahtab Hussain: You Get Me? / Reviewed by Helen Trompeteler / 02.07.17
During a nine-year period, Mahtab Hussain’s series You Get Me? documented the experiences of young working-class British Asian men living in Birmingham, Nottingham and London. Hussain’s aim throughout this project was to explore urgent social questions, asking what does it mean to be a British, working class Asian man in contemporary society? How can such young boys and men exist within a framework of ever-increasing anti-Muslim prejudice? Amid global and national events and an increasingly divisive political discourse, anti-Muslim incidents have risen at a staggering rate in recent years. The Finsbury Park mosque attack of 19 June 2017 was only part of the fivefold increase in incidents following attacks at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.
This exhibition brings together twenty four portraits which collectively examine ideas around identity, masculinity, and representation. Many of the portraits on display are unified by a three-quarter length centralised mode of composition which recalls the aesthetics of formal Western portrait painting, as well as previous photographic series exploring privilege in Western society (such as Karen Knorr’s Belgravia and Tina Barney’s The Europeans). These visual associations help signify how this community remains under-represented in Western iconography and the traditional art establishment. Occasionally portraits in the exhibition break from this convention, memorably ‘Friends, curry sauce n’ chips’. This double portrait shows one man wearing a salwar kameez, a Pakistani traditional dress, with rolled-up trousers and trainers, while the other is wearing the blue jeans, hoodie and padded vest of mainstream Western culture. Significantly, each figure’s pose and body language is recorded here in perfect symmetry; a mirror image. This photograph exemplifies what Hussain is often trying to achieve through his portraiture: a reflection upon what is shared, rather than what divides. The portrait Young man resting asleep also offers a quiet moment of reflection in counterpoint to other exhibited portraits which speak to a more public performance of masculinity.
A significant strength of this exhibition is the selection of carefully chosen first hand testimonial quotes, which begin to articulate the complexities of British Asian life and encourage direct conversation with visitors. Additionally, a curved wall in the outer centre of the space presents essential context, detailing findings and recommendations from the Greater London Authority’s 2007 report on Muslims, non-Muslims and the UK media. These statistics, revealing the scale of social and cultural constraints on young British Muslims, are faced on the opposite wall by a prominent grid of portraits of young boys and teenagers. These young men are shown at a formative age as they begin to understand and face the challenges that the exhibition so compelling conveys.
It would be impossible for one exhibition to offer any simple answers to the fundamentally complex social issues represented here. However during its showing in London, the exhibition and its carefully considered events programme has successfully opened up new discussions exploring how to address discriminatory attitudes towards British Muslims. Importantly,You Get Me? also contributes to redressing the under-representation of the British Muslim experience within a much older art historical canon.
– Reviewed by Helen Trompeteler
Mahtab Hussain: You Get Me? was exhibited at Autograph ABP 5 May – 1 July 2017