"We weren’t dropped like aliens, we came through the impact of colonialism and imperialism"
Mahtab Hussain’s 2018 exhibition ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ goes beyond Britain’s borders at the New Art Gallery Walsall in more ways than one.
It may primarily concern his visit to his parents’ native Pakistan and the resultant conflict with his British identity. Nevertheless, the exhibition transcends these borders to feel relatable to any immigrant in any country.
The award-winning British Asian artist earns global attention with his work on identity, heritage and displacement.
Now ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ envisions an alternative reality of Hussain’s parents never emigrating. While doing so, it importantly breaks from the traditional narrative of Kashmir as an impoverished, war-torn area.
Instead, Hussain turns his lens to the land and its inhabitants, taking us on a simultaneously personal and universal journey. Although, ultimately, he discusses his role as an artist to do so in order to connect with his viewers.
The British Asian Identity in Art
Mahtab Hussain is naturally creative, studying the arts at school and then college, before attending the prestigious Goldsmiths.
He followed this with eight years of principally working in museums and galleries. However, he moved away from this work in order to focus on his artistic practice. It was a change borne from “sheer frustration in not seeing work that I wanted to see in museums and galleries.”
“Most of the time when you see Asians in art spaces, they tend to be in education spaces, right? It’s never in the main galleries.
“I think a part of this is all to do with colonialism and imperialism. We were for many years conquered by the British and we haven’t quite got over that.
“So there is that challenge that needs to be made. I feel my role as an artist is to try and tell that story and have that conversation and help represent us in gallery spaces and have a sense of pride in where we come from or where we came from.”
This proved to be the right move as he tells us:
“That was over 10 years ago and since then, I’m lucky to say that I have four books published now.
“‘You Get Me’ was the biggest show of my life last year, which was in London. That reached an audience of well over 2 million people.”
“Now, I think that 10 years of my work is finally coming into fruition, in terms of people understanding how important it is for artists to be making work about race and representation and identity politics and multiculturalism. And trying to talk about the migrant experience in a very nuanced, complex way that allows for a bigger conversation to humanise the situation.”
In his work, Mahtab Hussain has moved comfortably between mediums. Going from photography to installation, he reveals he will direct his first short this year alongside writing a feature film script.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that this exhibition helps fulfil all of Hussain’s aims. While utilising his familiar medium of photography alongside tintype portraits, he brings both personal identity politics and a universal humanity.
A Universal Story
On one hand, Mahtab Hussain thinks all his work has the key element of a personal connection. For him, it provides the driving force behind each project and taps into what he feels is important to discuss.
Still, he emphasises that ‘Going Back Home Go Where I Came From’ is a universal story. His photographs include relatable ideas of homeland, loss and the sacrifice of immigrant parents.
Most significantly, however, the exhibition references the construction of the Mangla Dam and its consequences including the Kashmiri community’s displacement. This is a crucial conversation not only for the lack of awareness but for its worldwide relatability.
Hussain points out the importance of sharing stories to understand the migrant experience:
“One of the greatest issues we have as a community is that we don’t talk about our shared histories enough. I think that’s what needs to be done.
“We need to talk about our shared histories and migrant contributions in the First and Second World War. Like the impact of Partition, what the Mangla Dam did…Because I think then it will start to create a more human story to how migration has occurred and why we’re here in the first place.
“We weren’t dropped like aliens. We came through the impact of colonialism and imperialism and the division of Pakistan and India. So it’s important to have those stories told.”
However, this exhibition highlights how the oft-ignored history of Kashmir resonates with all. Globally, many experience displacement from their home and loved ones.
Even a recent New York Times article in response to his work hints to this. Mahtab Hussain observes how the usual vitriolic comment section also features global support for questioning the concept of homeland.
The Beauty of Kashmir
Nevertheless, there is a lightness to Hussain’s work in spite of its more serious implications.
Mahtab Hussain importantly tries to make work that challenges the stereotypes of Pakistan:
“They always think about a war-torn country or there’s always some kind of conflict or violence that’s happening. So I didn’t want to carry on with that same narrative.
“In terms of trying to find the different narrative, it was very easy for me to find that: the humanity side of things.”
Instead, he wants viewers to “fall in love with Kashmir and Pakistan”. Therefore Hussain has created an exhibition that is “very much abstract, it’s quite conceptual. It’s really about trying to capture memories and those memories could be anyone’s essentially.”
Hussain’s eye for arresting visuals fulfil this key goal of the photographs in ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’.
Viewers fall in love with the colours and tones as Hussain plays with light and shadow and layers texture. Creating a dreamy feel to his work, it’s again difficult to not find yourself immersed in his journey.
Most importantly, there’s a complete of lack of artifice to his subject choices.
His previous work followed certain rules to emulate styles like 17th-century court paintings. Whereas here, the reason for the exhibition’s spontaneity is evident when Hussain discusses the fun he had shooting:
“It was just a complete joy to make that kind of work. It was like being a kid again or picking up the camera for the first time when I was at college. And just enjoying the textures and the shadows and different angles and doing landscape photography, which was something I’d never thought I would include in my practice.”
“It was just collecting these visual memories with the hope that people would just fall in love with [an] image. For the sake of the image rather than any other narrative that needs to go behind it.”
Although ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ skillfully goes beyond a visual sensory experience.
Specks of blackbirds may appear abstract against a blue sky, yet their cries in the wind are almost audible.
Elsewhere, a blade of grass stands stark among many in a field. Then, there’s the urge to reach out and grasp it.
In fact, what’s so wonderful about ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ is specifically this return to a childish and natural world, regardless of whether you’re an immigrant.
Mahtab Hussain demonstrates a fascination with textures, particularly those of trees and wood in close-up shots. In turn, his fascination evokes a familiar, almost childish attention in the audience.
The viewer lingers on his images of rough bark or the jagged edges of crushed walnuts. The images fully transport us on Hussain’s journey to his imagined childhood.
Another Life in Kashmir
Still, the exhibition’s dreamy mood deliberately contrasts against the title’s more provocative associations.
Mahtab Hussain recalls racial abuse as a child and first realising that England wasn’t his home as others: “People would shout from the car, ‘Go back to home where you came from’.”
But rather than reclaiming this abusive statement, he tells us the title of the exhibition is:
“Almost a way to say to all those people, well fuck you then, I’m going to go back [laughs] and this is what I discovered and actually, it’s a really beautiful part of the world and a very peaceful part of the world.”
The strength of ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ comes from this seeming contradiction between peace and rebellion.
He tells us:
“So there’s this beautiful portrait of a boy, who’s just been swimming in a lake, he’s just standing next to these blades of long grass.
“When I look at that portrait, gosh, my life could have been just as rich as his, in the sense of having a very outdoor experience. As it is in England, you tend to live in your homes a lot more and the sense of community is sometimes broken down in different societies here.
“And I really just experienced this wonderful, almost like a hint of how a non-capitalist society would function.”
“This idea of the land giving you everything that you need, so it was hugely transformative for me. I felt this sense of connection that I didn’t really think that I would actually have.
“I always really felt that I would be a tourist when I came to Kashmir, but I really found something that felt like a sense of belonging and home.”
Similarly, the peacefulness of the portraits encourages us to rebel alongside Hussain without forcefulness. The natural and unforced poses quietly invite you to imagine swapping lives with their subjects.
However, Mahtab Hussain is careful to clarify that this isn’t a rejection of England. The exhibition simply serves as an artistic journey for the artist, and now the viewer.
“I am very proud to live in England and it is my home and I think my home is wherever I physically am in that space, rather than having to define myself through national boundary and England has been wonderful.
“Britain has been amazing for many migrant communities. I’m the first in my family to be educated at university so now I have the luxury of being an artist and practising as an artist.
“My dad was a long distance lorry driver so there’s been a huge shift in just one generation and that is because of the sacrifice that my parents made really.”
Indeed, Mahtab Hussain’s personal story helps to sum up the exhibition. His photographs and his story simply encourage you to imagine and dream in a manner not dissimilar to many migrants.
A Shifting World
Of course, ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ does look at the past with its subject matter. Yet, there’s the overriding sense of being conscious of the future, particularly how the West will change.
“Individuals have told me that I may think England is my home, but I’ve got a home in Pakistan and I should go back there and that England would never be mine.”
“If they think that way, they’re quite short-sighted because our home isn’t Pakistan or India, or Iraq or Saudi Arabia – wherever these people feel we should go back to.”
He then tells us:
“When our parents moved over they sacrificed that connection and the second generation/third generation will never have a home in those places.
“The reality is that now we are part of a now hybrid culture and England is our home. And we…not that we don’t have anywhere else to go, but you get used to the fact that the world is changing and it’s never going to go back to the way it used to be.”
Indeed, some of the themes of the exhibition – youth and old age, nature and technology – make change haunt the photographs.
Hussain reflects upon this:
“I think in our society we’re in a very interesting space. The younger generations, they don’t want to be defined by national boundaries, by gender, by identity labelling. They want to be fluid. And I think that where we’re definitely headed.”
“I think one of the reasons why that’s happened is because technology has connected us globally. And in a way, we’re able to find communities that we feel connected to and that can be all around the world.”
Nevertheless, Mahtab Hussain’s ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ reinforces the power of the visual image to still help people of all backgrounds to connect.
The 2018 exhibition at New Art Gallery Walsall has as much to say about England as it does about his parents’ native Pakistan.
It feels like an important part of exploring the British Asian experience in a traditionally exclusive space.
However, more than anything, it shows the beauty of having such roots in a country too often misrepresented like Pakistan.
DESIblitz is excited to see how Mahtab Hussain continues to break stereotypes in the art scene both nationally and globally.
Hussain’s exhibition, ‘Going Back Home To Where I Came From’ is open from 25th May until 7th September 2018.