The Commonality of Strangers by Mahtab Hussain

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

Mahtab has developed the themes of his work through long-term photographic research and has articulated this in a visual language that challenges the prevailing concepts of multiculturalism. The exhibition at the Strange Cargo Gallery has two distinct parts - the first collection of portraits is the result of the five month research residency the artist spent in Nottingham, during which he connected with people from all walks of life and from across the globe, and with people from both established and new migrant populations in the UK. The people, or sitters as Mahtab 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. Mahtab also worked with the local Nepalese community who live close to Strange Cargo’s new venue, creating a series of portraits that reflect different generations of the Cheriton based Nepalese community.

“It was my own family history, with ties to the British Army, which initially brought my attention to this highly respected Nepalese community living on the outskirts of the very British seaside town of Folkestone. My grandfather served in the Second World War for the British, he was later invited to this country after the end of the war, and so I am a product of colonialism in just the same way as the Nepalese community. The Gurkhas’ historical legacy with the British Army is well known, they have been serving for over 200 years and are a highly respected community in Britain. They have an urban legend which surrounds them, and I wanted to explore this, and the community, in more depth.

The Gurkhas and the community are proud of their history and proud of the fact that they were invited and given joint residency. Outside the barracks, the inevitable contrast between the older generation, the elders, and how their children and grandchildren are the morphing effortlessly into western society was interesting, and I wanted to capture the essence of this in my portraits. Fascinating still, was the fact that the majority of the community had been born in Nepal, and yet the youth already seem to have assimilated towards western culture, many feel deeply rooted to their adopted country with no real intention of returning to their native ‘home’.

Naturally, the impact of making this work lies closely with the current national and international debates and attention focused on migration. We

are steeped in extreme views on both sides of the argument, and so I feel it is increasingly important to highlight specific migrant communities who are wholly dedicated to their adopted country and finding ways to live harmoniously within it. Despite the positive views already held by the wider community, I feel it is still vital to give this vibrant Nepalese community a voice”. Mahtab Hussain.

This exhibition has been made possible through financial support from Arts Council England and Shepway District Council.