Dig a little deeper

Posted By Skinder Hundal and Mahtab Hussain on 16 August 2016

Post Brexit, artist Mahtab Hussain and Skinder Hundal, Director of New Art Exchange, blog about how art makes space for empathy and understanding.

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks since the EU referendum result. For most of us, this period of political uncertainty in the UK has been absorbed, at least partially, through the lens of social media, which has given recent events a different tone. On the one hand, it has given a platform to otherwise marginalised voices, and been the catalyst for new waves of activism. But on the other, we’ve also witnessed its capacity to simplify arguments, constrain us within a bubble of other people who think exactly like we do, and create false dichotomies that ignore the complexities of real people and how they think and behave. On the internet, politics can get boiled down to ‘us’ and ‘them’.

A woman in a green top poses for the camera with a baby wrapped against her back
'Mother with child' - from The Commonality of Strangers. Image © Mahtab Hussain

The truth, of course, is rarely that straightforward. And it’s the messy, complicated, human elements of political situations that we really need to understand and grapple with if we hope to have a future in which people can come together, despite their differences.

As curators and artists, we believe in the power of art to help us dig a little deeper.

If every citizen in the UK really engaged in creative projects, what would our society look like?

On the day of the EU referendum result, New Art Exchange launched Mahtab’s series of photographic portraiture in Favara, southern Sicily. Titled The Commonality of Strangers, it explores the journey of migrant communities in Hyson Green, Nottingham. Surrounded by a community of Sicilians who had witnessed at first hand the tumultuous effects of migration, situated as they are at one of the epicentres of the European migrant ‘crisis’, we felt wary of the reactions that might follow.

A man in a grey striped jumper stands in front of a grey wall, holding an accordian
'Man with accordian' - from The Commonality of Strangers. Image © Mahtab Hussain

Mahtab’s series of portraits in The Commonality of Strangers examine who holds the power in the three-way relationship between the artist, the subject and the spectator. They allow the sitter control over the image and how their story is represented, and accompanying each portrait is Mahtab’s write up of that migrant’s journey. Observing the enthusiastic responses from the audience in Favara, and the conversations that started to happen around the exhibition, demonstrated to us the power of creative expression to tell a fuller story. The events of the day offered an unexpectedly poignant context for the exhibition, which made it seem all the more relevant and necessary.

Identity is a complex concept for many of us, and any useful discussions around it would usually exceed 140 characters on Twitter

Our experience of making art, and using it to engage with communities, is that it offers a space in which we can start to understand each other’s differences. It lets us examine issues on a human level, full of complexities and contradictions. It gives us knowledge of other people’s experiences, and asks us to walk a mile in their shoes.

A man in dark sunglasses stands in front of a brick wall, wearing a blue polo shirt and holding a yellow iphone
'Blue polo and sunglasses' - from The Commonality of Strangers. Image © Mahtab Hussain

Here in Nottingham, we’re lucky enough to witness many powerful examples of this work in action. Ben Harriott’s photography series, Beyond the Barber’s Blade, explores the barber’s shop as a social space and a place for sharing news in black communities. The engagement process in this project focused on black people’s narratives, and included a public programme of debates. It offered individuals such as ex-gang member, Lois, an opportunity to realise a new life through creativity, and reject violence and drugs that would have led to prison.

And Sooree Pillay, an activist, artist, writer and theatre maker, works with young people on projects that look at fostering talent and creating conscientious citizens. One such project resulted in an award-winning installation, Get Up Stand Up, which was shown at the Galleries of Justice Museum. Making use of this historic building, an immersive tour was created that allowed visitors to explore ideas about justice and human rights. The young people involved in the creative process were able to connect with other people of different cultures, backgrounds and perspectives to explore issues like migration. They came away with a deeper knowledge of critical issues, as well as a huge sense of achievement.

we believe in the power of art to help us dig a little deeper

Mahtab remembers how visiting museums and galleries as a young boy made him question who he was and what identity really meant to him. Identity is a complex concept for many of us, and any useful discussions around it would usually exceed 140 characters on Twitter. He wanted to become an artist to create a visual history about his migrant experience, his identity and community. We both believe that encountering work like his can increase our capacity for empathy, and open up a space for dialogue.

Art can offer light when we most need it, and new pathways into understanding what life means. If every citizen in the UK really engaged in creative projects, what would our society look like?

Two Asian men stand in front of garage doors painted with the English and Great British flags
'St George's Cross, Union Jack and two Asians' - Mahtab Hussain - You Get Me

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