"They are angry for a reason": Artist who created portraits of migrants in Nottingham vows to love leave voters "as family"

By Culture24 Reporter | 29 June 2016

Photographer Mahtab Hussain portrayed migrants in Nottingham and found out about their lives. He says the EU referendum result was a vote against immigrants

A photo of a father and son in a street as shown in Mahtab Hussain’s photo exhibition
Father with son© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
On the day Britain voted to leave the European Union, photographer Mahtab Hussain’s Commonality of Strangers, an exhibition elegantly portraying the multi-ethnic community of Nottingham’s Hyson Green area, opened at a regenerative cultural complex in Southern Sicily.

Polish, Pakistani, Trinidadian and Ivorian residents are among those pictured and interviewed by Hussain, a Midlands artist whose mini-survey was praised for its uncompromising view of life in the neighbourhood when it stopped at the city’s New Art Exchange, where he was artist-in-residence, more than a year ago.

It posed as many questions as it did answers, and Hussain sees the migrant story as “all the more important” in the aftermath of the vote. “This move was not about sovereignty,” he says.

A photo of a man carrying a bag of potatoes as shown in Mahtab Hussain’s photo exhibition
Bag of potatoes, flat cap and earlobe© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
“It was about turning our back on the immigrant. Fear, anger and postcolonial nostalgia has given rise to xenophobic and racist attacks across the UK, making it all the more important to humanise the migrant story.

“The Commonality of Strangers explores the diversity of global immigrant populations in a European country and exposes the challenging perceptions between one another, and those from the wider community.

“After working on this commission, I concluded there are more commonalities in us than being strangers and we must be honest for positive change.”

Double breasted jacked, fur hat with cross© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
Hussain is one of the most respected voices on the subject: he is the lead artist for Black Country Voyages, a project at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery exploring the mass displacement in 1960s Pakistan which led to the establishment of new communities in the Midlands, and has also worked with communities from Nepal (at Strange Cargo in Kent), Muslim residents in the West Midlands town of Tipton and with an artists’ collective from Karachi (at Ikon).

He is determined to avoid being overcome by frustration. “I'm not going to hate those who voted to leave,” he determines. “I'm going to love them as my family.

“They are angry for a reason and we must listen to their fears, but we must show them that the path of hate and fear is misguided.

“I am often asked, ‘Who are you, what is your identity?’, and I only have one response: ‘I'm like you, I'm a human being.’ We need to move beyond the hate.”

Commonality: Four voices from the exhibition


Black top, black hat with earrings© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
“I am from Abidjan, West Africa. I came over here to England for salvation. There were a lot of problems back in Abidjan during the Ivorian Civil Wars. They would kill anyone.

I didn’t really want to leave, but because of the problems I had no choice. I lost my parents from this war. I lost my dad, then my brother and my sister.

It was Christian against Muslims. If they find out that you are a Muslim, they will kill you, or someone find out you are a Christian, they’ll kill you; that is why I came here. It was all to do with the president in power and his reluctance to step down - his people began killing civilians.

The Christians killed my family. A lot of people died, including my friends; they all died in that war and I was 21 when this happened. That was 10 years ago.”

Black hoodie, blue jeans, shaved head© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
“Here many people have come to England from struggle, and immigrants have always come to England.

In my country now, in Poland, you have many black, Indian and Pakistani people all in the big towns. In Germany it is the same. There are lots of Turkish and Kurdish people. But we are all immigrants, what does it matter?”

Mother with son© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
"It seems like this country that has decided to put a stop to migration has put a stop to life. Because migration is good for multiculturalism and diversity and without that, there is no growth.

I just think that there’s a selfish nature and attitude to other cultures in this country, if I have to be blunt. They have gone out and taken resources from other countries and they have bettered their own country; but then they don’t seem to understand how they have affected change in other countries.

We all depend on one another: oil resources, raw materials, labour. So if we stop migration, we are putting a stop to trade, we are putting a stop to social diversity.

They have had the advantage of interacting in other countries, taking hold of nations and bringing their own way of life into nations and they have been received. But they don’t want to receive other people.”

Mr Biggos© Mahtab Hussain, The Commonality of Strangers 2014
“My customers are Polish, mainly: 90% Polish and English, Jamaicans, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Russian, you name it. Punjabi Sikhs, because they eat pork, so I get loads of them. So everybody who lives in this area.

Many years ago we had a strong Polish community, because after the war, they stayed in Britain. They used to fight in the Battle of Britain or in North Africa and Italy.

They come to England because Poland became a communist country, so they have nowhere to go. So we had plenty of Poles then, Ukrainians, Germans. Now it’s second or third generation of them, and new immigrants, new Poles. There are loads of them now.

Polish people who come from Poland now are different, you know. The old generation, they have the war experience and they had no country to go back to.

Now Poland is free, they can travel and it’s a completely different mentality. The Poles are already born in new Poland, you see, because the communists collapsed 25 years ago, so it’s a new generation of Poles.

I always believed I would live my life in this country. Most of my life I’ve spent in Britain. I’m dual national so I feel Polish-British. I don’t know how to explain.

My family are doing well. One daughter is a lawyer. Another one, she finished Russian and Slavonic study. The third one, she wants to be doctor; she’s at Sheffield University studying medicine, so all are well.

Everything my wife and I have earned we have invested in our kids to have a better future.”


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to explore migration in

The Runnymede Collection at Middlesex University
A unique resource for the study of the history of race relations in Britain since the 1960s. It is a specialist collection of books, pamphlets, documents, journals and press cuttings on the development of multiculturalism and cultural diversity.

Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, Manchester
The Centre provides a wide range of resources aimed at encouraging self confidence and pride in black and ethnic minority people and equipping all communities with the information and knowledge to resist racist appeals.

Polish Social and Cultural Association, London
The Polish Library POSK in London was founded in 1942 and specialises in Polish emigre literary and historical works. The collections include books, newspapers, periodicals, archives, manuscripts, photographs, maps and music.
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