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The Commonality of Strangers: Mahtab Hussain

New Art Exchange, 39-41 Gregory Boulevard, Nottingham, NG7 6BE
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The Commonality of Strangers: Mahtab Hussain


Saturday 31 January - Sunday 12 April 2015

New Art Exchange (NAE) will reveal an exceptional new body of work by award-winning British social commentary artist Mahtab Hussain called The Commonality of Strangers.

An ambitious project commissioned by NAE, The Commonality of Strangers combines photography and text to explore important relationships between identity, heritage and displacement resulting from migration - the truths of which are rarely revealed in the public realm.

Visitors to the exhibition will have a unique opportunity to discover personal stories of leaving home, family and friends behind, in search of a better life for their future generations. In stark contrast to the opportunistic and welfare-grabbing image of the migrant painted by right wing politicians, The Commonality of Strangers serves to contextualise and humanise the migrant story, urging viewers to move beyond widely held stereotypes and assumptions.

Hussain has developed the themes of his work through long-term photographic research and has articulated this into a visual language that challenges the prevailing concepts of multiculturalism. Immersing himself in local communities during a five month research residency, the artist spent his time walking and exploring the streets of Hyson Green, Radford and Forest Fields in Nottingham.  During this period he connected with people from all walks of life and from across the globe, including those who consider themselves to be wholly British. The results of these encounters will be seen for the first time in the Main Gallery at NAE.

Placing the artist in an urban locality with a diverse mix of different ethnicities and cultures provided Hussain with the opportunity to explore the effects and difficulties of multiculturalism in the broadest context. Moving beyond the Pakistani diaspora community, which has been a significant focus in his work-to-date, he has now engaged with both established and new migrant populations in the UK. The people, or sitters as Hussain refers to them, who feature in The Commonality of Strangers, have moved to the UK from a multitude of locations including Algeria, Ghana, Iraq, Jamaica, Kurdistan, Malawi, Poland, Romania, South Africa and Sudan.

The narratives that accompany each sitter’s portrait are often deeply shocking; the magnitude of each journey is further heightened in contrast to the ‘everyday’ quality of the portrait itself.  By presenting everyday scenarios one can easily relate to, Hussain asks the viewer to consider the commonality of mankind’s wants and needs whilst emphasising that the veneer of everyday life can easily veil the immense struggles and the deeper, hidden contexts in which people live and have lived.

The work presents realities of war in countries such as Iraq, and the impact it can have on people’s lives – not just in the present, but for years to come. The role of Britain as a nation is directly referred to by sitters who have grown up with a belief that moving to the UK will improve their lives in many ways. However, it is evident that the reality of British culture and its lack of community cohesion are starting to take effect, leaving many migrants lacking a sense of identity and belonging.

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