Mahtab Hussain An Ocean in a Drop: Muslims in Toronto

Aga Khan Museum and Park ⁠ accessible_forward
77 Wynford Dr
May 20–Oct 1
    Mahtab Hussain, Ruze Cetin, 2021, from the series Ocean in a Drop: Muslims in Toronto. Courtesy of the artist and Chris Boot, © Mahtab Hussain 2021

In his ongoing series of photographic street portraits, British artist Mahtab Hussain addresses and challenges the poor visibility and stereotyping of Muslims in mainstream art and media. For this outdoor installation on the grounds of the Aga Khan Museum, Hussain turns his lens on Toronto’s Muslim youth in ways that bring to the fore their unique individual identities, contributions, and perspectives.

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

— Jalal al-Din Rumi

Hussain first embarked on this portrait series in the wake of 9/11, first photographing in the UK (London, Birmingham, Bradford, Nottingham) and then in New York. His Toronto series is titled An Ocean in a Drop: Muslims in Toronto after a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi about the uniqueness and universality of the human condition.

The portraits are accompanied by personal statements, based on the Scottish-born artist’s conversations with the sitters, providing further insight into their stories—both positive and negative—of everyday life in Toronto. Ruze, for example, speaks about her choice to wear a hijab, and how that choice brings with it societal pressure and negative experiences that affect her interactions with those within and outside of her community. Rishada is disillusioned with the city’s touted image as a place of acceptance and racial and cultural harmony, and Yavuz grapples with the stereotype that all Muslims are Middle Eastern when, in fact, they come from a broad range of complex geographic and cultural backgrounds.

Hussain’s sitters gaze directly into the lens, without affectation, positioned against the background of their urban Toronto neighbourhoods—a visual composition that projects both the local and the universal. His portraits speak to the diversity of a community that is often oversimplified and represented as homogenous. Positioned on the grounds of the Aga Khan Museum, these portraits are shown at larger-than-life scale, asserting the strength of Hussain’s subjects. Ultimately, through the artist’s succinct and unflinching approach, a powerful story emerges, one that bears witness to the individuality of young Muslims who aspire to assert their personal, cultural, and spiritual bearings amid adversity.

Curated by Marianne Fenton

Presented by the Aga Khan Museum in partnership with CONTACT. Part of ArtworxTO: Toronto's Year of Public Art 2021–2022

Mahtab Hussain (British, b. 1981) explores the important relationship between religious identity, cultural heritage, and social displacement, challenging the prevailing concepts of multiculturalism. Hussain received a BA in History of Art at Goldsmith College, specializing in Fine Art Photography, and an MA in Museum and Gallery Management from City University in London, England. He was awarded an Arts Humanities Research Council Grant and completed an MA in Photography at Nottingham Trent University. Hussain has received numerous awards and commissions and has published four artist books. In 2017, his series You Get Me?, published by MACK Books, won the Light Work Photobook Award.