Commonality of Strangers finds no neat conclusions at Nottingham's New Art Exchange

By Ben Miller Published: 04 February 2015

Exhibition in one of Nottingham's most multicultural areas shows contentment, fear and few signs of a big society

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If the word commonality might suggest a sense of co-operation, symbiosis and optimism flowing through Mahtab Hussain’s portraits of multiculturalism, the tales to be told here are repeatedly uncomfortable ones.

Commissioned by the gallery to explore the socio-political climate of its surrounding area, Hussain – a celebrated Midlands photographer whose work often homes in on identity and displacement – took to the streets of Hyson Green, where Nottingham's largest ethnic community spans from Russia to Africa.

Anyone expecting lip service about the joys of diverse communities or immigrants in thrall to their new homes will discover those narratives in place, but also find themselves stopped in their tracks along the way.

One vignette, by a Polish resident, has an abrupt change of tone right when you least expect it: an easy-come, easy-go opening, discussing the distinct improvement Nottingham offers on a Poland with “no future”, suddenly picks out a difference in cultures with the potential to clash.

“If it goes any further, I would think there’s going to be a war,” he says, possibly with a matter-of-fact air of acceptance. “People don’t get along, that’s the truth.”

The words read starkly, but Hussain’s respectful shots give away little of their tone. There is not, it seems, a great deal of time for reflection here. That warning swiftly fades back into the sitter’s chief concerns about having a job and keeping afloat – a layer which Hussain unpeels but always shifts back into focus.

A man with four children moves scrap metal in his van, while a Pakistani meat shop owner has been selling quality meat for 20 years.

“We don’t get no trouble,” he says, describing a peaceful and happy community. “But things can happen anywhere.”

Not everyone is as satisfied with their profession, although a fellow butcher, from Poland, speaks proudly of his three daughters who have excelled in law, languages and medicine.

One woman – a carer working for an agency – feels oppressed, and is straight off to her native Trinidad and Tobago when she hits 50. Another would rather be back home in Kashmir, forced to move to England by food shortages.

And some, as satisfied as they are with their surroundings, will never have the option to return to their first home: an Ivorian came to England for “salvation”, their parents, brother and sister killed in a battle between Christians and Muslims ten years ago.

There are no neat endings. Some believe the area is improving all the time, while others – “scared” by the lack of English they hear, pinning England’s economic travails on immigration from 28 countries to the poorest areas during the past six years – believe they are seeing a nation on a ruinous slide.

It’s hard not to think the respondent who works in a mail shop and declares money as their sole interest might have had an arched eyebrow when they said England had lived up to their expectation as the best country in the world, echoing in an entirely different way the unerring opinion of the man frowning upon settling families.

The notes of optimism tend to come from the young. Three African youths express bewilderment at being “constantly” stopped by the police, but say their diverse social circle of Poles, Romanians, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians have united.

“There’s not one big society”, believes a counter tone, seeing divisions between the Asians and Polish communities. The younger people, they feel, have a continuing tendency to mix which could lead to a brighter future, although not one close enough to stop them leaving the area.

Hussain’s portraits are unsentimental, leaving the directness of the words to strike strongest. When the issues are this complex, subtle storytelling is all that is needed.

  • The Commonality of Strangers: Mahtab Hussain is at New Art Exchange, Nottingham until April 12 2015. Open 10.30am-6pm (3.30pm Monday, 9.30am-5pm Saturday, 11.30am-5pm Sunday). Admission free. Gallery tour on February 14, 12pm. Follow the gallery on Twitter @newartexchange.

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