An interview with Brunei Gallery artist Faisal Hussain

Faisal Hussain gallery exhibition artist

Lucy Kauser, Collections & Outreach Officer at the Brunei Gallery SOAS, recently interviewed artist Faisal Hussain, whose exhibition will come to the Brunei in 2021.

Faisal Hussain creates work that questions perceptions, undermines lazy stereotypes and highlights missing histories and overlooked facts. Whether in music, in a gallery or a sign outside a kebab shop, his cross-disciplinary practice is often presented in varied environments to engage with diverse audiences. Using archive and personal memory as starting points, his work explores the representation and understanding of South Asian culture and identity through the media, government, communities and individuals.

His latest exhibition – ‘Suspect Suspects, Suspect Objects’ – will open at the Brunei Gallery,  SOAS on Tuesday 12th January until Saturday 20th March 2021. You can read more about this exhibition on the Suspect Objects website

The exhibition is free and open to the public. To be the first to know about what is happening at the Brunei Gallery, sign up to the gallery newsletter

Hi Faisal – if you were not an artist, what do you think you would be doing?

I would have become an architect. I am inspired by architecture and it is visible in some of my other work.

What was your journey to becoming an artist? Did you study fine arts or come through a non-traditional route?

I studied BA Fine Art at Falmouth University, graduating in 1999.

After graduating and working with my family, I started working for BBC TV and Radio, a number of arts centres and different independent organisations. I created documentaries allowing me to travel to Pakistan and Europe, and I also worked on a number of community-based projects around issues ranging from gun crime to more archival and historical work. The return to my arts practice was inevitable as the changes in society and political climate inspired me to create work that addressed the challenges they posed.

The ‘Prevent’ strategy offers money for ‘anti-radicalisation’ programmes promoting ‘British Values’. Symbolic of the strategy’s positive facade but harmful core, ‘Prevent Cakes’ are a seemingly generous offer as luring promotional materials often are, but whose presentation disguises an inedible acrid taste.

Your work has a clear theme running throughout, but the mediums you use are incredibly varied – cakes, street signs, model figurines, mobile screenshots. How do you choose your mediums?

Racism is a material. You can bend it and shape it into something that shows its undeniable absurdity; enabling it to undermine itself.

The work always changes as racism shape-shifts; the mediums follow the idea. Reflecting the stories or experiences I want to share means they require different approaches and embodiment in different objects, modes or technologies.  

Brunei Gallery exhibition Faisal
The Gove Horse is a confronting physical depiction of the political ‘Operation Trojan Horse’; a plot in which the Government falsely accused Muslim individuals and schools in Birmingham of radicalising children. The over-sized foam toy juxtaposes the innocence of children with the imposing impact the scheme has had on their lives and education.

Your exhibition was originally scheduled to open in July 2020 but was postponed due to Covid, how have you coped with this unusual year and has there been an impact on your work?

It has given me time to stop and take stock; to watch how the interruption of life has made us realise deeply embedded inequalities, and highlighted problems that should have been addressed long ago. If racism can be thought of as a virus, unfortunately, Covid hasn’t affected it, it is alive and well, mutating and expanding exponentially.

Has the message behind much of your artwork changed over time and/or been influenced by other civil rights issues and activity that have come to the fore this year such as the BLM movement for example?

My influences were the Anti-war movement and it’s subsequent campaigns that I was involved in from 2000 onwards. I was inspired by the Asian Youth Movements of the 80s, the Black Arts movement started by Rasheed Araeen and the writings of A. Sivanandan.

As the various stories arose online and in mainstream media around a child being incarcerated for dismantling clocks or a generation of children being the victims of a fictional ‘extremist agenda’ in local schools, I was emboldened to respond.

I think that this year has been pivotal in the tradition of Black politics and working class struggles. Seeing their advance this year has been heartening and provided a needed hope.  

‘Muslamic Rayguns’ is a satirical meme derived from an interview with a drunk racist at a protest, which became viral on YouTube. Whilst a symbol of ridicule against divisive far right groups, it also acts as a reminder of their power to influence and mobilise ill-informed members of society through misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Who is the ‘Suspect Objects Suspect Subjects’ exhibition for? Who are you hoping will see it?

Everyone. I’m hoping that those people who consider themselves anti racist enjoy it and I am also particularly eager for those who don’t think racism is their problem to engage with the work. I hope it will impact people to think about prejudice, consider their own actions and how they could be being misinformed by certain political agendas. I hope those people who are at the receiving end of racial hatred also see it and feel a sense of release from the continuous bile of prejudice and hatred meted out to them.

As the artist/curator, what made you choose the pieces for this exhibition, over your other works?

The collection of works came about through a number of different cases of racism that occurred from 2016 onwards. They are all in part a by-product of racism. These works were chosen as they balanced and encompassed perspectives across individual, societal and political experiences. What emerges are works that target and immerse the viewer, to echo the persistent attacks, which surround Muslim communities in Europe the US and around the world.

What made you choose the Brunei Gallery and SOAS?

SOAS has a reputation and tradition of internationalism and of pluralism. As the exhibition addresses themes around identity, belonging and racism, SOAS is well-suited to present the work to its varied academic and public audiences. It is a fitting platform to host debates that will arise from the work and facilitate interaction between academia and art.   

If someone takes just one message away from your exhibition, what would you hope that would be?

A quarter of the world is Muslim and it is untenable to continue living with each other without respect and justice for all. If injustice continues, so will the cycle of hate and inequality, and therefore so will this kind of work.

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