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Dismantling Intellectual Ableism in the Arts

POSTED: 03 August 2021

Historically, the art world has not recognised or valued the work of neurodivergent artists. Sonia Boué considers the ways in which Sharif Persaud’s first solo exhibition Have You Ever Had contributes to a dismantling of intellectual ableism.



Historically, the art world has not recognised or valued the work of artists like Sharif Persaud. The reopening of Persaud's first solo exhibition Have You Ever Had at Autograph signals a culture shift, enabling this talented and charismatic neurodivergent artist to occupy centre stage as a member of the Turner Prize nominated Project Art Works collective. Both momentous and a cause for celebration, these combined events merit fanfare and analysis.

Have You Ever Had is the culmination of the three-year-long EXPLORERS Project and the artist’s commitment to his practice. An artist’s individual agency is a point often missed when their work is supported. Indeed, removing the lens of ‘supported work’ is vital if we are to dismantle a cultural hegemony which still allows intellectual ableism. Visual literacy is assumed in our sector, but do we really know how to read works beyond a narrow spectrum of lived experience?

Sharif Persaud, Untitled (2017)

For example, Persaud’s large painting Untitled (2017), featuring ‘hospitals, masks and sneezing’ brought to mind works shared on Instagram by David Shrigley (also Turner Prize nominated), which harvest thousands of likes in seconds. To me, Shrigley dresses his art schooled ‘naive’ paintings in schoolboy clothing, while the strength of a work like Untitled is precisely that it is unschooled and not interested in likes. Equally, to my eye, Rose Wylie’s lines are encumbered by art school aesthetics. The beauty of Persaud’s large drawing Did You Hear? (2017) is that it is genuinely unfiltered and concedes nothing to the viewer. Why should the value of these works always be inverted?

Knowingness is over-rewarded in the arts, our eyes becoming accustomed to art-schooled faux ‘naivety’, while the real deal have been treated as outsiders. Have You Ever Had provokes for me a new thought: has this been a historic act of cultural appropriation, to which Persaud’s solo work provides a riposte? Certainly, his bold and uncompromising vision is a quality shared with artists like Picasso and Tracy Emin, and if we consider practice to be of equal value to the artists themselves, prejudice slips away. How we view, analyse and frame practice is here revealed as a social justice issue.

Sharif Persaud, Gangrene (2015)

When you look at Persaud’s large painting of a gangrenous foot, I suggest searching for Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line, by Henri Matisse (1905). Egypt (2016), brings David Hockney to mind. The way in which this work has been supported is no different in essence from a range of supports any artist might use, albeit called by another name such as ‘outsourcing production’ or ‘hiring tech’ (think Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol). The factory model, for instance, takes this to extremes. Dismantling such biases requires some familiarity with the neurodiversity paradigm, but the fundamentals aren’t hard to grasp: we need all kinds of brains to make a world. That all artists practice according to their neurology is also a truth not often stated.

Have You Ever Had levels up and demonstrates the importance of access, revealing what a loss to our culture the omission of artists like Persaud has been. The show also places him within a rapidly emerging neurodivergent culture, in which we often work across artistic forms, and also autobiographically (to communicate about our lived experience). We see this in his award-winning film The Mask, in which Persaud leads the camera in a rapid-fire performance, writing his own script and taking directorial control. Domestic incidents and bodily processes are foremost, providing a vivid point of connection for diverse audiences. Keep up if you can!

the fundamentals aren’t hard to grasp: we need all kinds of brains to make a world. That all artists practice according to their neurology is also a truth not often stated.

Persaud has an instinctually sophisticated grasp of relevance as seen in Untitled, but also The Mask, (the latter of which may be missed by some audiences). Masking is one of the foremost issues of our struggle for emancipation as autistic people, and I am still processing the layers in this extraordinary stand out performative work.

I am delighted that Sharif Persaud’s profile will rise even further with the Turner Prize nomination, but time will tell if we can truly dispense with intellectual ableism in the arts. His star deserves to shine, his work displays a conceptual coherence, which upends social conventions with complete self-assurance.

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Sonia Boué will be speaking at our upcoming event on Collective and Interdependent Approaches to Art Making. Find out more and book your free ticket here.

about the author

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Sonia Boué

Sonia Boué is a multiform artist. She is also a writer on autism and art, and a leading consultant for neurodiversity in the arts. She has a significant body of postmemory work and pioneers in neuro-inclusive practice-led research.

You can follow Sonia on Instagram and Twitter, and see more of her work on her website.

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Banner image: The Mask [still], 2017. 3 mins 46 seconds © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works.

Images on page: 2) Untitled, 2017. Acrylic, ink on paper, 228 x 151 cm © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works. 3) Gangrene, 2015. Acrylic, brush pen on paper, 151 x 155 cm © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works.

Other images on page: 4) Courtesy of Sonia Boué 5) Self Portrait [detail], 2015. Acrylic on paper, 128 x 180 cm © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works. 6) Egypt [detail], 2016. Acrylic, felt pen on paper, 257 x 151 cm © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works. 7) Untitled [detail], 2017. Acrylic, ink on paper, 228 x 151 cm © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works. 8)The Mask [still], 2017. 3 mins 46 seconds © Sharif Persaud and courtesy of Project Art Works.