MAHTAB HUSSAIN'S exhibition “You Get Me”?, at Autograph ABP in London, comprises 24 portraits of young South Asian Muslim men in working-class neighbourhoods of Nottingham, London and Birmingham. Mr Hussain hopes to stimulate conversation around one of the most maligned groups in Britain, many of whom feel designated a threat to their country, and how growing up exposed to hostility can feed alienation and dislocation. Mr Hussain talked The Economist through the exhibition before the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London. In their wake, the themes of “You Get Me?” are yet more urgent.
First and foremost, Mr Hussain wanted to shift perceptions of young Muslim men by turning on them the kind of admiring lens usually reserved for the highborn and famous. Their pride, dignity and exuberant style burn brightly and bristle with defiance. These portraits highlight how rare it is to see young brown men represented in this way in mainstream media, advertising and museums and galleries. On the morning The Economist visits “You Get Me?”, passers-by stop and double-take at billboard-size rendering of “Red T-shirt, baseball jacket, car” in the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
As part of the nine-year project, Mr Hussain, a 36-year-old artist from Birmingham, conducted interviews with the young men he photographed. “I was told time and again: the media is against us; they tarnish us; headlines put British versus Muslim,” he said. “You Get Me?” highlights this by presenting findings from a report by the Greater London Authority hung in the exhibition space. One excerpt reads, “Muslims in Britain are depicted as a threat to traditional British customs, values and ways of life,” while another says that “the tone of language is frequently emotive, immoderate, alarmist or abusive”.
Mr Hussain feels that politicians posit Muslims as a monolithic bloc, and that bitter and media coverage hardens unhelpful notions of irreconcilable Muslim and British identities. “Rhetoric around British values, segregation and integration, Prevent [the government’s anti-radicalisation programme] and media portrayal of Muslims tell these young men ‘you don’t belong here’. The sad reality is we’re seen as foreign, not British.”
“You Get Me?” illustrates this with quotes from interviews floating around the portraits. One reads:
When 9/11 happened I was four so obviously I didn’t really know what was going on but in terms of now, of how Muslims are portrayed in the media, I think it’s a very one-sided story. We’re all terrorists, evil, who want to take over this country. I mean thinking back now, I was only four so all I’ve experienced is that this country hates me.
I feel unwanted. You are born here but people still say, “Go back to where you are from. You are not from here.” But when you are born here, you can’t really tell me that I’m not, because you know…when someone tells me to go back home, I think my home is here.
When approaching young men for “You Get Me?”, Mr Hussain was viewed with suspicion. “I was constantly asked ‘do you work for the government?’, ‘are you undercover police?’, ‘do you work for MI5?’,” he recounts. Yet this was not the case when the photographer approached teenagers. “The kids were much easier to connect with. They were at secondary school and innocent. I’d talk to them about what they want to be and it was anything and everything in any field. But when I spoke to guys in their mid-20s, they’d totally shut down and given up.”
Speaking after several of the recent attacks (but before a van ploughed through Muslims leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park), Mr Hussain is solemn and weary. “As a Muslim you feel vulnerable and you’re bracing yourself for the abuse. It’s a feeling of hopelessness: you know there’s going to be an outpouring of hate towards you and social media will go crazy,” he says. Following the London Bridge attacks on June 3rd, the Mayor’s office reported a fivefold increase in anti-Muslim abuse, with 54 physical and verbal incidents reported on June 6th alone.
As Britain again faces hard questions around homegrown terrorism and counter-terrorism policy, “You Get Me?”, conceived long before the current wave of violence and anguish, feels prescient. Mr Hussain hopes it can contribute an important discussion: “We need to humanise the situation and have a more nuanced conversation. We need to have a different conversation.”
"You Get Me?" is on display at Autograph APB in London until July 1st.