Mahtab Hussain’s ‘You Get Me’ exhibition, currently showing at Autograph ABP, packs a real punch. It features a series of photos of Muslim men taken over a nine-year period in Birmingham, where Hussain grew up – a project which came about through Hussain stopping individuals in the street and starting conversations with them as he took their portrait.
Why do such a thing? Looking at the photos, it doesn’t take long to form a sense of the emotions evinced by the sitters: defiance, and distrust, in particular. Hussain says that he strongly identifies with his sitters, having first-hand experience of the difficulties young British Asian men experience growing up in urban environments. This led him to begin investigating the themes of masculinity, identity and sense of self; focusing initially on young men of Pakistani descent, Hussain’s remit evolved as it became increasingly clear that the men he portrayed identify first and foremost as Muslim.
These young men’s experience of being culturally ridiculed by the constant flow of derogatory media representations of Muslims was a constant theme in the interviews conducted by Hussain – and evidence of this is borne out by academic analyses presented alongside the photos. They make for enlightening – and sombre – reading.
According to the 2011 Census, 2.7m people in the UK identify themselves as Muslim. Two thirds are of Asian descent and generally live in the metropolitan areas of Greater London, West Midlands, the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside. These communities tend to experience high unemployment rates, discrimination in the workplace and racism on the street.
This is compounded by news coverage of events such as the 2015 Paris attacks, which has generated a spike in hate crimes. Experiencing Islamophobia has led to increased feelings of anxiety and depression, especially amongst young Muslims – a finding backed up by the Muslim Youth helpline, calls to which have increased rapidly since 2015.
In Hussain’s interviews with them, his sitters addressed the flood of negative media coverage of Muslims, as well as their experience of poverty, lack of educational opportunities & social progression and the absence of male role models in the community.
This exhibition had a real impact on me. The photos are fascinating: compelling and challenging, they make you question your own perceptions of this country in which we live. Combined with Hussain’s interviews and the academic analyses, they ask a number of pertinent questions, to which I’m not sure any of us have the answers.
Riveting – and necessary – viewing.