Connections by Mahtab Hussain
By Mahtab Hussain, Ikon Slow Boat artist-in-residence
Last month, I was hugely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to spend time at Ladywood Health and Community Centre where I met local residents who were, not only connected to the centre, but also to the towers nearby. I was interested in the towers because for two years as a boy, I had lived in a similar building, one I once called home. I wanted to meet the residents of these blocks, firstly to give a visual voice to those that remain largely voiceless in our society, but secondly, to help build through this small residency, a strong working relationship with the community and Ikon Gallery for years to come.
The selection of portraits you see here have been made using a process called tintypes. Making tintypes is an organic, and at times, volatile process requiring a darkroom nearby to develop the images. A bespoke box, my darkroom, was made that was easily transported to the centre. The process itself is divided into seven parts – collodion is poured over the metal plate, it is loaded into a silver bath; once light sensitive, the metal plate is loaded into a plate holder (all of which is done in complete darkness), the plate is then loaded onto the back of the camera, exposed, and then left to develop in the darkroom. Finally, it is fixed in natural light. If used for portraiture you can find yourself falling in love with ghostly likenesses, beautiful in their resulting imperfection from the process. Equally wonderful and absorbing is its direct positive process, so it has an instant quality allowing the sitter to see the image come alive as it smokes its way onto the surface of the metal.
It was a real pleasure to share such a unique process with the sitters, everyone was amazed and mesmerised by the whole process and once they were able to see their image, conversations about the past began to surface. There was laughter too, and as each portrait was made everyone started to compare and boast whose was the best. It made for a great working day and the energy was palpable. I imagine having one’s portrait made using this method was once a rare and celebrated occasion, so it was wonderful to be able to continue to experience the timeless quality and effect it still had on all the sitters, some of whom had to sit motionless for two minutes – harder than you’d think. As a token of our gratitude, each sitter received a portrait of their own, and in the new year, a small exhibition will take place at Ikon to welcome them into another public space with which they can now feel strongly connected.
I would especially like to thank Linzi and James and Ikon’s Youth Programme, who helped with the ground work and enabled me to connect with the community of Ladywood. I would also like to thank Harry for his invaluable help, since he made this residency possible and memorable.