Mahtab Hussain is taking photographs of his fellow Pakistanis in Birmingham – to help them discover who they really are. Graham Young reports.
After London, Birmingham has the second highest population of Pakistanis in the country.
But with an estimated 99,800 people of Pakistani origin in a city of 1,037,000 (ONS, 2009), the proportion is much higher here.
Now photographer Mahtab Hussain is trying to shed light on the growing Pakistani population in the city, having made an impression at the MAC in Cannon Hill Park last year when he submitted a photographic entry for its ‘anti-curate’ freestyle exhibition.
Supported by the MAC and funded by the Arts Council, his first chosen project of ten is ‘the Pakistani male living in a contemporary British society’.
His ground-floor, introductory exhibition of three, large-format pictures was taken from 40 submitted photographs.
“Everyone has got an amazing story to tell and you meet some amazing people,” he says.
“I hope my work will be able to bring that forward in the future.
“Through my blog and website, this is very much a live project.
“The Pakistani community here is far different from anything I’ve experienced in London.
“The bigger question is: ‘What does it mean to be a British Pakistani?’
“So I’m studying the youth culture and hip-hop – why people have zig-zags in their hair, gold teeth and why we can’t find our own identity and need to latch on to another community.
“My work is all about opening up the debate.”
Early comments from visitors has been encouraging.
One girl wrote: ‘Preferred identity – British Muslim. Pakistan will never be my home. It’s not who I am (so proud of my Pakistani parents). I will never have my preferred identity while I’m still filling in forms forced to tick box (ethnicity – Pakistani)’.
Someone else has added: ‘I went through this 50+ years ago... once the confusion subsides a bit, it is a very powerful thing to belong to two cultures!’
Thanks to Facebook and people wanting to share their pictures, Mahtab has moved from film to digital, working with natural light wherever possible. His cameras are a Contax G2 35mm Rangefinder and a Canon 5D Mark ll
“I think flash destroys an image,” he says.
“And I have toyed with the idea of going back to film. I find it a comfortable way of archiving.”
While there are more than 100 British Pakistani millionaires in the country and other members of the community can be very middle class and successful in law, business and medicine, many others are second only to sections of the Bangladeshi community in terms of poverty.
Mahtab (pronounced Mah-taab) is ‘a British Pakistani Kashmir’.
And he’s also Scottish, too!
“I was born in Glasgow and we moved when I was about five,” he says.
“We went to London, then to Bradford and finally settled here.”
He found the working class area of Druids Heath an unforgiving place to be as a brown-skinned boy in a predominantly white area.
But it has shaped the man he is today – well spoken, articulate, enthusiastic, polite, determined.
His work is ‘more about culture than religion’ and he is passionate about mentoring anyone struggling to find their place in the world.
Much of Mahtab’s psyche was shaped by working at the National Portrait Gallery where the ‘sitters’ are the stars, not the artists who have captured them.
It is also how he met his English wife of Scottish descent, Lucy Macmillan, who is a ‘curatorial researcher’ there.
Lucy is from London where he still splits his time with Birmingham.
Mahtab studied photography at Joseph Chamberlain College before taking a BA degree in the history of art at Goldsmith’s College.
His decade in the capital includes an MA from City University London, but it’s at the heart of the Midlands where he sees the couple’s long-term future.
“I am so lucky to be with someone who is so interested in my family culture,” says Mahtab. “Lucy is a great inspiration and great to talk to about my work. We’re a good team and I feel very, very free.”
His mother came over to the UK in her late teens, his parents had divorced a few short years after arriving in Birmingham. Mahtab hasn’t seen his father Shoukat ‘for years’ after living with him as a young teenager proved to be a ‘stupid’ decision.
There is no regret in his voice. No pain in his eyes. Just the remarkable stillness he seeks from his subjects.
“My father’s father was in the British army. When dad came here he was a long-distance lorry driver, then a London bus driver and a cab driver.
“He was an accomplished qawwali singer who appeared on TV and even performed at the MAC, but he didn’t have the confidence to develop it.
“Going to live with a friend and his family at the age of 17 and going back to my mother helped me to get my own confidence back, something my father took away from me after a difficult divorce.
“I was a shell of a person then and you would not have recognised me if you had met me.
“I came from an incredibly difficult past and maybe it is this past that cares for people who are struggling.
“I guess I see myself in them, the hopelessness of life that some of the youth talk to me about. If it is one thing I have learned whilst studying art history, it’s that most artists have come from difficult situations.” Mahtab doesn’t see himself trying to become ‘an incredibly technical photographer’.
More of an artist expressing himself through photography, but whose long-term future could be in sculpting.
Elder sister Shella is a financial adviser, while twin sister Henna is completing her PhD in psychology.
Younger brother Aftab, 25, works in banking, while the youngest sibling Amraz – now 15 having been adopted when he was just four days old – has his heart set on computer games / animation and graphic design.
“They’re all strong-minded individuals,” Mahtab smiles.
The resolve comes from their mother, Imtiaz Hussain.
“She’s a foster carer,” he says, unable to begin to count how many children she has given love to over the years, from babies to mid-teenagers, from fellow Pakistanis to mixed race, Afro-Caribbeans and the white, blonde and blue-eyed.
“When I’ve come back home from London, I’ve always given time to the (new) kids, always,” he says.
“I get down and talk to them at their level.
“I remember a teacher doing that to me and it blew me away.
“Children are so receptive and intelligent and just need guiding in the right direction.
“Our mother is an incredibly strong woman who has set us free to be able to do what we want to do in life.
“She has sacrificed a lot with her own life and I’m always going to be indebted to her.
“Mum taught me to work hard, stay focused and that things would work out eventually.”
En route to his current status as a self-supporting photographer/artist with his own studio at the Custard Factory, Mahtab says he tried to do the science things which he felt were expected of him by people.
“It made me miserable,” he admits.
“I just had this calling for photography.”
It took three major drafts and three years to secure his Arts Council funding.
“It was a lot of hard work,” he says.
“I had to devise ten aims of what I wanted to achieve, what my goals were working with the community.
“One of the projects I’m doing is ‘Seven Dads, Seven Sons,’ with people born after 1981.
“With a schools’ project I want to show pupils they can achieve whatever they want.
“Some people feel like there’s nothing out there for them and they want to know how to ‘get there’.
“I hope that by going to schools I can inspire them, not necessarily to be artistic, but that they can actually achieve their dream if they really work for it.”
* Mahtab Hussain: What does it mean to be a British Pakistani male today? is at the MAC until June 10, 2010. Website: www.mahtabhussain.com
9/11 put Muslims in spotlight
On the day of 9/11 in 2001, Mahtab was on his way to Joseph Chamberlain College when he became aware of an ‘eerie’ atmosphere and was left ‘completely numb’ by the reports as they unfolded.
Even now he doesn’t understand what it was all for, but he recognises the world has changed as a result.
After Section 43 was introduced, Mahtab says was stopped at Charing Cross Station simply because of the colour of his skin.
“I felt really victimised,” he says. “It was the first time since I suffered racism at Baverstock School that I didn’t feel part of this country.
“We need to accept each other and move on. That’s when we can be truly free.”
Mahtab says he was one of only three Asian pupils at his school but still suffered racism.
Today, there are probably some classes where that proportion has gone the other way.
How does he think white children feel in a predominantly ‘Asian’ classroom?
“I would like to think that colour is no longer an issue any more. It’s about who you are.
“I don’t think children see ‘colour’ at that age and hopefully there isn’t the kind of issue I suffered.
“Since I’ve been to London there have been some incredible mosques built in Birmingham. If that’s not integration, I don’t know what is.
“Communities should be celebrating the fact they have these wonderful places to worship in and to celebrate the fact that we have been accepted in the UK.
“Before 9/11, people here had no idea about Muslims or Islam – and those attacks weren’t what Islam is about.
“Now we are right at the front of the media.
“Who are we? I see myself as a human being who is interested in people and their lives.
“I am proud to be British and to have my old cultural values, as well.
“It’s about celebrating those things, and taking the good out of everything.”
In the past, Mahtab says he has had blond hair, red hair, piercings and... now he worries if he’s too old to wear Converse style shoes.
He’s had his distinctive hairstyle for 12 years.
“I cut it myself. I used to go to the barbers where you would pay £5 and they could only give you short, back and sides.
“Then I started to cut my own hair, which is incredibly thick.
“I made a pig’s ear out of it at first and would have to wear a hat.
“But since I’m probably going to lose it one day, I’m trying to make the most of it by holding it up with wax.”
Soon it’s time for me to take my own portraits of Mahtab, who has an appointment to rush to that I didn’t know about.
And still he comes across as Mr Calm. Mr Still. Mr Relaxed.
I try to make him laugh and capture his lovely, natural smile.
But then he has a quiet word just before we shake hands.
“Please don’t use any of the pictures of me smiling,” he says.
“I want to be taken seriously.”