Submit to Love: The exhibit documenting brain injury and optimism

Tony Allen. Pic: Chloë James.

The moment Tony Allen has had his dinner, he forgets it. Sometimes he forgets what he was working on earlier that week, or what he has just said. One thing Tony never forgets, however, is his love of art – after all, it’s “part of the world, innit?”

In his own words, Tony, 53, “can’t remember fuck all”. He is one of a collective of self-taught artists with brain injuries in east London, currently exhibited at Hackney’s E5 Bakehouse. Having attended the Headway’s day services for over ten years, he is one of the founding members of the brain injury association’s art studio: Submit to Love. There he uses a combination of his injury and the world around him as inspiration for works he deems “quite good”.

“I don’t think about anything else,  just art,” said Tony. He sits surrounded by his creations, which are dotted around the walls and fill a portfolio by his side. “It makes me very focused and happy. I think about all the good things in my life and the good things I have done.”

The “good things” are wildly varied. At the time of interview, Tony was working on two pieces. One features an elephant holding out his trunk to shake Queen Elizabeth’s hand. The other piece reads: “Everybody’s got a brain in their head. It’s up to them if they use it.” It’s one of many “Tony-isms” dotted around the Submit to Love studio – itself named after one of Tony’s shrewd refrains.

“Those words are hung in pride of place in the middle of the art studio,” said Connie Sides, Submit to Love’s studio coordinator. “Due to his severe memory impairment, Tony is freshly excited each time he sees them; ‘Submit to love – I did that!’”

While Tony may not always remember the impact of his words, he understands why he said them. “I didn’t write it just for me,” he said. “I wrote it for us lot. Everyone should be kind to each other by submitting to love. I thought they were joking at first when they wanted to call the studio ‘Submit to Love’ … I feel proud.”

Tony-isms are just one glimpse into the creativity that could be difficult for Tony to express without art. His ideas are outlandish at times; one piece features a three-breasted woman. Yet, Sides explains, they have their own internal logic. “There is always an invented story behind these figurative artworks,” she said. “Tony explains [that the three-breasted woman] grew an extra breast because she has three children and needs to feed them. He fails to mention why she is missing a head, or why her children loom threateningly large over her prostrated body.”

Producing works like these provides a greater purpose to people like Tony than just an artistic outlet. Submit to Love’s creative leader, Michelle Carlile, has seen a noticeable change in members who pursue their creativity. Not only can they develop into exhibited artists like Tony, but members have the chance to establish identities they might otherwise feel they have lost to their injuries.

“People express themselves through art,” said Carlile. “One of the men here cannot speak or hear, so art is his form of expression. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – it’s about expression and that sense of worth and identity.”

For Tony, identity is inherently connected to his memory. Carlile describes how Tony can leave the room after painting all morning only to come back and sit at another person’s artwork, believing it to be his own. However, he remembers that he paints in the studio twice a week and finds the process itself therapeutic.

“Not remembering things drives me mad,” said Tony. “It has helped me with the memories I have had. Helps me remember things in a way, in a good way.”

Tony is just one of many using art as an outlet. Others include Chris Miller, 65, a retired teacher who sustained a brain injury after having a tumour removed, and Billy Mann, a former journalist who took up art after experiencing a stroke. Identity plays a large role in all their work, with members recently banding together to create the ‘Making Faces’ exhibition at Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall. Their works explored the face, body and sense of self, looking at the disjuncture between what is seen and what is felt.

While Tony’s artwork is exhibited at E5 Bakehouse until February, his full portfolio features on Submit to Love’s website. Tony has just one requirement for those who view it: “Look and take a second. Look and take in what I have drawn. It is highly important.”

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