LONDON: Mahtab Hussain, a British artist of Pakistani descent, had grown tired of the simplistic narratives that portrayed Muslims as either refugees or terrorists. While in art school, and later at the National Portrait Gallery in London, he was irked that no one had done any projects about Asians and Muslims like him.
So he decided to do one.
For the last nine years he has been photographing Asian Muslim communities in England – in Nottingham, Birmingham and London – focusing on working-class, British, Asian young men and boys. The resulting series, “You Get Me?,” is on exhibit at Autograph ABP in London, and will soon be released as a monograph by Mack. The pictures, which explore concepts of masculinity, radiate tension, with teardrop tattoos, leashed up pit bulls, and mad-dog stares. These poses, he said, reflected his subjects’ own wishes about how they wanted to be seen.
“When you’re the underdog, you have nothing else to do but try to fight the system,” Mr. Hussain said. “If that anger is not channeled creatively, it becomes violent. If you’re told you’re violent, you’re going to be violent. If we keep telling the Muslim guys that they’re a threat, they’re going to be a threat.”
Mr. Hussain’s grandfather had emigrated from Pakistan after World War II, as England welcomed its colonial subjects to help with postwar reconstruction. Mr. Hussain was raised in Druids Heath, a predominantly white area, where he was called a “Paki.” As the only Asian student in his school, he felt intense pressure to fit in. “I had no choice but to assimilate, and then be part of the white community,” he said. “It’s hard enough not fitting in because of the color of my skin and hair.”
Yet to other children of immigrants, he was an outsider.
“The Asian lads that I was hanging out with were saying I was too white,” he recalled. “I was too British. They used to call me ‘Fish and Chips,’ and they used to call me ‘John,’ because they couldn’t understand how I was so British, but I looked like them.”
When he approached subjects on the street, he’d offer a handshake, introduce himself with “As-Salaam-Alaikum” and then say, “Are you not sick and tired of being labeled as a terrorist and pedophile? You’re not a part of British society. We need to change the narrative.”
Many young men had embraced African-American culture, which Mr. Hussain said was the one minority group that was constantly represented in American pop culture. The tough-guy model persona popularized by Hollywood was appropriated, too.
“American culture is a global experience,” he said. “England is America in so many ways. We consume what you give us.”
For example, in one photo a young man points an imaginary shotgun at the viewer. He has a hard look in his eye, and it’s quite intentional: He was channeling Tony Montana from “Scarface,” Mr. Hussain said, when he yelled, ‘Say hello to my little friend,’ a touchstone in hip-hop culture.
Most of Mr. Hussain’s subjects are conscious of representing a certain kind of masculinity. Either stylish and metrosexual, or streetwise and threatening, their clothing gives clues to their degree of assimilation, and how they view their place in English society.
Although some of the images reinforce the stereotypes he’s attempting to undermine, Mr. Hussain wanted his subjects to choose how they were depicted. If they look tough, it’s because they see strength as power, which earns respect.
As is often the case with art that’s inextricable from the moment, Mr. Hussain’s interest in the roots of masculinity is personal, not political. He said he was the victim of terrible abuse growing up and witnessed “horrific acts” of domestic violence at home, which led to his parents’ divorce.
“He was a brute of a man,” he said of his father. “I had a lot of physical and mental abuse with him for 10 years. Part of the work is about understanding what is this macho-ism, this hard-man mentality? This aggression and this violence. Where does it come from?”
After the divorce, he lived in his father’s house for 10 years. His father was a long distance truck driver and was often out of the home, so Mr. Hussain became the homemaker and took care of his younger brother. He fled his father’s home at 17 and reconnected with the Asian community via his mother. Though he said therapy helped him after this difficult period, it was art that saved him, as making pictures allowed him to begin to comprehend his tumultuous upbringing.
“I didn’t think I was going to be here, if I’m being honest,” he said. “There’s been a couple of times when I was at my father’s that I wanted to kill myself. Art saved me. It was my therapy. I‘m a big ambassador for creativity, and how it can really develop you. It can transform you, if you put your work into it.”