A woman stands behind a register amongst shelves of soaps, creams, and other various goods. She wears a black shirt, a fashionable black hat, and gold hoop earrings. Standing straight, hands folded on top of the counter, slightly leaning forward, head angled away but eyes looking right at you, she seems confident but wary. She seems patient, maybe waiting, perhaps for her next customer, perhaps for her shift to end. Behind her, flyers hang on the window, some advertising films, one featuring a phone company that allows calls to Nigeria. She could hand you the shampoo you came to buy, ring you out, and tell you to have a nice day. You might barely register such an interaction as you go on with your day. You would not know her name, her lifestyle, what brought her here. But Mahtab Hussain wants to tell you her story.
Mahtab Hussain is an award-winning social commentary artist who uses Photos such as the one described above, entitled “black top, black hat with earings,” to explore international migration in modern Britain through his exhibit, The Commonality of Strangers.
Hussain's method to create this series of Photos was highly research-based. He took residence for five months in local areas such as Hyson Green, Radford and Forest Fields in Nottingham in order to fully immerse himself into the communities. The people he met who were willing to share their stories left strong impressions on the artist. He says, “I didn’t make a conscious decision to make work about the migrant. However, I felt compelled to focus on this very topical subject whilst listening to the stories that people were prepared to share with me. I heard many speak of violence, prosecution and personal tragedy. I walked away from my encounters with these people, angered by what I was being told.”
With this collection of Photos, Hussain hopes to do away with the veneer created by the ordain of everyday life that masks the experience of those around us and the context that they live in. He creates this effect by putting the sitter of his Photo in a variety of urban, everyday settings, their eyes looking directly into the camera. The Photos are simply entitled with what the sitter is wearing, in the same way we may look at someone and only take in their appearance, what they put on the outside. To move past that and show what is underneath, each shot is accompanied by a striking narrative describing the sitter's experience in their own words. It not only shows where the person or family is now, but how and why they came to a new country.
“We often hear about asylum seekers or immigrants taking over, taking our jobs, our homes, filling our schools and hospitals, exploiting our benefit system and ruining our country. The migrant has no face, no name and is stripped of colour, race and gender, they have become the new other, an alien race not welcomed here. I discovered something quite different, and I hope this series begins to challenge the standard narrative about immigration, and open up a new dialogue for these fragile communities who are vilified and live under constant scrutiny and hostility.”
The Commonality of Strangers exhibit is featured by the New Art Exchange in Nottingham from 31 January until 12 April 2015.