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"Did you hear?": Zara Joan Miller reviews Sharif Persaud

POSTED: 04 June 2020

“We are, many of us, in a self-contained annex, often with a phone in hand”

Behind the closed blinds of Autograph’s gallery, Sharif Persaud’s exhibition is still hanging. Persaud’s art explores identity through his experience of contemporary life and autism, and Have You Ever Had is his first solo show. It’s also the culmination of the UK-wide EXPLORERS Project, highlighting the extraordinary contribution neurodiverse people make to art and culture.

We had planned for pop-up exhibitions and events to run alongside Sharif’s exhibition, all focused on issues of disability and visibility. One intention of this programme was to give a platform to the incredible community groups, studios and artists who work with Autograph. To amplify their art and voice. This includes Submit To Love Studios in Hackney, a collective of self-taught artists – all of whom have survived brain injury. They're based at Headway East London, a local charity.

Their pop-up exhibition was going to be called Common Threads, and we’ve already shared some of the art on our blog while our gallery is closed due to Covid-19. Today, watch and listen as Headway East London volunteer Zara Joan Miller shares her thoughts on Sharif Persaud’s large drawing Did You Hear?

This video is captioned, or keep scrolling to read the full text.

"When I first saw this drawing, I thought he was holding an axe. The arms and legs of the chair, or is it a bed, appear almost indistinguishable from those of the person holding the axe. There is an axing, too, of the space and of the voice; split between two speech bubbles. Yet things appear contained or, as the first speech bubble puts it, 'self-contained'.

The axe is not an axe, it is a phone. I realised this, returning to the drawing a second time. The kidney-shaped speech bubbles split the speech into two, but this is not a clear split between two voices, between caller and recipient. There is only one person talking, Sharif. He is calling Tim to ask if he’s heard the news; that he has moved into a self-contained annex. What is a self-contained annex? And do the speech bubbles represent a significant divide or did he simply have more to say than one bubble could hold. What came first? The bubble or the speech? The words or their containers?

Tunnel-like connections join the bubbles to the figure’s mouth. They make me think of umbilical cords more than telephone cords. The way they are long and tubular, connecting directly to the tiny figure, connecting him to another. The bubbles hold the words of the call like Sharif holds the telephone, tightly. Still, I can’t help but see the axe. It makes no sense that he would be wielding an axe but it’s like an optical illusion; once you see the picture one way, it’s hard to undo. It’s in his posture, too – upright, the kind of core-holding stance of someone holding a heavy object over their shoulder. And so, I started to think about how an axe and a telephone are similar.

Like the telephone, an axe is a tool, but its purpose is to sever rather than connect. Plus, a telephone is so much more than a telephone; it is a hyper-functional tool; a compass, a camera, a telescope, a spirit-level, a butterfly identifier or whatever you ask it to be. An axe is simply an axe: a tool for chopping, for chopping wood. But it’s what that chopping facilitates that matters. Chopped wood facilitates a fire, one of the earliest human innovations, providing a source for warmth, for cooking food, for forging tools, for light, to gather around. Like the telephone, fire is a manmade tool, one that can bring us together.

There are two people in this drawing. Tim and Sharif. Connection and absence are presented in equal measure. Why is this a phone call and not a meeting? Did this conversation really take place or is it imagined? Why does Persaud choose not to draw them sitting across from one another? There is no eye contact. No table to share. This distance, perhaps, is essential to the texture of the conversation – or, more precisely – how Sharif feels comfortable sharing his news with Tim.

In this drawing, Sharif creates a connection through the voice, made visual, in which distance becomes tactile, handheld, made of words. This is a mode of sharing that does not require face-to-face interaction, yet the words are open and generous. Like an axe, the drawing holds some weight (he’s got lesions on his arms, he tells Tim, several allergies) but essentially, he’s calling with good news. He’s calling to tell Tim about his new home. Did you hear though Tim? He asks. Did you hear? About his new set up. He’s got an appointment with the dermatologist (really good news). Did you hear?

He starts most sentences with 'Did you hear?' It’s a rhetorical question, bringing to mind the chitchat of gossiping neighbours. He’s excited. This is good news he’s got to share. A new home. A self-contained annex. It might not sound very homely, but we soon learn it’s his own place, with his father, where he won’t need a carer or a support worker and he’s going to try really hard.

I first saw this drawing at Autograph Gallery about three weeks before going into self-isolation. Before the words “lockdown” or “quarantine” or “isolation” were part of our everyday speech. Looking at it now, on my phone, it seems prophetic somehow. A kind of mirror to the present, reflecting the situation many of us are currently in; on lockdown, relying on our tools for communication more than ever. We are, many of us, in a self-contained annex, often with a phone in hand."

Zara Joan Miller is a writer and artist. Recent contributions include Another Gaze, Matter magazine and The Experimental Library. Zara has been a volunteer at Headway East London for four years. @zarajoanmiller

find out more

See more work by the collective at Submit to Love Studios on their website

Read a review of Sharif Persaud's exhibition at the Hackney Citizen

The EXPLORERS Project is led by neurodiverse communities, placing them at the heart of social, civic and cultural activity


Part of the EXPLORERS project, delivered by Project Art Works, a three-year programme of art and conversation working with 12 national art organisations. The EXPLORERS programme is informed and led by neurodiverse communities, placing them at the heart of social, civic and cultural activity. Based in Hastings, Project Art Works is the UK’s leading artist led organisation working with children, young people and adults who have complex support needs.

common threads is supported by

Banner image: Sharif Persaud, Did You Hear?, 2017. Courtesy of Project Art Works.