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Hospitals, Piers, Masks and Sneezing

POSTED: 10 June 2020

In these times of Coronavirus crisis, ordinary words have a meaning that they did not have just a few weeks ago. Watch and read Chris Miller’s review of Sharif Persaud

When Autograph opened Sharif Persaud’s exhibition Have You Ever Had in February, we couldn’t have known how the resonances of the show would change with Covid-19. Sharif is profoundly interested in his body in society as a site of investigation: sneezing, healthcare, hospitals, gangrene, cities, flats, benefits and his independence. Through these themes, Sharif’s art explores identity and his experience of contemporary life and autism.

Before we (temporarily) closed our gallery due to the pandemic, Chris Miller was preparing a Thursday Late talk at Autograph about Sharif’s large painting Untitled. Chris is an artist at Submit To Love Studios, based at Headway East London in Hackney. Like all of the members of the Studio collective, he is self-taught - and has survived brain injury.

Chris isn’t able to give his talk in the gallery while the exhibition is closed. So, we’ve worked with him to bring it online: watch, listen and read below.

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

"In these times of coronavirus crisis, ordinary words like ‘hospitals, masks and sneezing’ have a meaning that they did not have just a few weeks ago. But for Sharif Persaud, an artist with autism, such words have always been obsessions very close to the surface. And recently we too have become obsessed by all these – perhaps, with the possible exception of piers – but if like Persaud, you come from Hastings, even this obsession is entirely reasonable!

This painting is not conventionally beautiful or aesthetic: it’s full of drips of black paint, but this is not the point. Neither is it an expression of painterly technique and perfect representation, of a supermarket or a face, for instance. We have photographs for what we think of as faithful images. We have chocolate boxes for beautiful and comforting ones. I see Persaud’s creative process as dredging down and examining what is beneath the surface, the pebbles close to the bottom of his being. Perhaps with autism these pebbles, these obsessions, are closer to the surface.

“Normal” people – (whoever they might be) – are “better” (whatever that is) able to hide these obsessions. “Normal” people, in their normal everyday lives, develop a thick carapace, a skin, and are less able to dredge the depths of their personality or soul. But we do not live in “normal” times. Being slightly out of kilter can mean that you can see yourself and your world more clearly – if you are on the edge of society, have a brain injury, are disabled, autistic – or in lockdown. What is often seen as a disadvantage, can quickly become an advantage, even a superpower.

The obsession with masks is evident in much of Persaud’s work. Masks are deeply psychological and complicated. Why is Persaud so obsessed by them? I am not sure. My theory is that the white face in the right centre of the painting is a mask of one his particular obsessions, the pub landlord – a character created by the comedian Al Murray. But is the face in the painting the mask of the pub landlord, Al Murray playing the pub landlord, the Real Al Murray, or Persaud playing one of these characters? I said that masks were complicated.

Comparison between Persaud’s painting and that of other artists come to mind. For me, unalloyed naïve art does not exist – we all draw from what we see, unconsciously, from the same zeitgeist. When I see this painting, what comes to my mind is graffiti art, particularly that of Jean-Michel Basquiat. There are the drips of paint, the combination of words and images, the collection of seemingly naïve drawings – but even for Basquiat (and I am a fan), there is no one work that brings together his key obsessions in the way this one does.

People may say “isn’t it a good thing that Sharif, despite being an autistic person, has his art hanging in a gallery. This must be very therapeutic for him.” And in some ways, they may be right. BUT a lot more is going on than this. The dangers of this one-sided, paternalistic way of seeing things is that the person making the art is belittled, and the person doing the patronising, at best misses out on learning from the artwork. It is pigeon-holed as outsider art (not Real Art), or at worst, isn’t even looked at.

I believe Persaud’s art, as well as having been therapeutic for him to create, can influence those of us who truly look at it – and go on to change how we see ourselves and our world as we emerge from these difficult times."

Find out more

Chris Miller’s talk was going to be part of Submit To Love Studios’ pop-up exhibition Common Threads. While our gallery is closed, we’re bringing Common Threads online. See more here, and here.

Visit Submit to Love Studios’ website

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

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


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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.

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Banner image: Sharif Persaud, Untitled, 2017. Courtesy of Project Art Works

Images on page:: 1) Sharif Persaud: Have You Ever Had? exhibition at Autograph, London. Photograph by Zoë Maxwell