Japanese ‘Outsider Art’ Draws Insider Attention in London

The art world constantly craves something new, and an unusual exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection–a free venue that combines galleries, event spaces and meeting places–delivers.
“Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan,” showcases the work of self-taught Japanese artists diagnosed with mental, cognitive or behavioral disorders who live in social welfare facilities.
The word “souzou” is often translated as “creation” or “imagination,” and these are on display in abundance, as the artists transform everyday materials into reflections of their worlds and themselves.
Shota Katsube turns everyday twist-ties into a colorful collection of miniature superheroes. Komei Bekki interprets traditional clay masterwork through meticulous, totem-like statues. Norimitsu Kokubo draws fantastical cityscapes based on information he gleans from the Internet.
“It’s very well-curated. I think the works chosen are of the highest quality for this field,” said outsider-art scholar and writer Edward Gómez.
The term “outsider art” is related to “art brut,” coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to mean “raw art,” or that created by those unaffected by mainstream society.
In Japan, the artists are discovered almost exclusively through programs organized by social welfare organizations. The artists’ interests are overseen by a group called Haretari Kumottari, formed around 2005.
About half of the 46 artists on display are from Shiga Prefecture in western Japan–a prefecture that was “at the forefront of social welfare after World War II and remains at the forefront,” said exhibition curator Shamita Sharmacharja.
After the war, various institutions were set up for traumatized orphans and children with disabilities. Some of these facilities became residential homes with a focus on rehabilitating people to be able to work, an important social value in Japan.
To organize the show, Ms. Sharmacharja traveled to Shiga and Tokyo and met about half of the artists. She said some were excited about having their work displayed in London, but others not so much.
Akane Kimura, for example, creates intricate ink drawings incredibly fast and is entirely focused on the process rather than on the final product. “She wouldn’t mind if they disappeared every day,” Ms. Sharmacharja said.
The emphasis is on the art, and the story of the artist isn’t presented unless it’s relevant–a point Mizue Kobayashi, art director of the Tokyo-based social welfare organization and one of the exhibition’s collaborators, Aisekai, was keen to make.
“The art wasn’t created because the artist is ‘disabled’ in some way. That is not the point, but rather we want the world to see that their condition is a part of their individuality,” she wrote in emailed comments. Ms. Kobayashi doesn’t see her program as “art therapy,” but as a creative outlet for people with disabilities.
Mr. Gómez said the art appeals for its raw, creative energy, its originality and personal feeling. “It’s very sophisticated and refined, and technically of the highest quality.”
He noted that Japanese outsider art often shows a strong sense of compulsion and obsession. “Neither we nor they know why they make what they make.”
He said the art was especially interesting for its individuality, given that Japan is a group-oriented society and artists have historically worked in groups.
Wellcome Collection Chief Curator James Peto said one of the main challenges for the exhibition was choosing a name. “The word outsider suggests many things about the artist,” he said.
While the term doesn’t have a strict definition, it is derived from art created by those completely without contact with mainstream culture. Yet Mr. Gómez points out that it is nearly impossible to find someone so out of touch in today’s world.
“In the last 10 years in particular we’re blurring lines between contemporary art and outsider art.”
Indeed, most of the “Souzou” artists aren’t socially isolated at all. “Self-taught” may come closer to describing those without formal training who create for themselves.
“Artistic creativity can reside in anyone,” Mr. Gómez said. “Why shouldn’t that kind of ambition reside in someone who is self-taught?”
Japanese outsider art has only begun to gain international recognition in the past five years or so, starting with an exhibition at the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2008, and a bigger show in Paris in 2010-2011. The Wellcome Collection exhibition expands on one at the Het Dolhuys museum of psychiatry in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 2012.
In Europe and in the U.S., there has been interest in outsider art for decades, and a commercial gallery structure to support it. But in Japan, there is no system to bring the works to market, and only a few galleries specializing in self-taught art, Mr. Gómez said. Moreover, in Tokyo the art market is relatively small and “not as moneyed as New York and London.”
“It will be interesting to see if artists emerge as their own ‘brands’ and not as that of the art therapy programs,” he said. “Any artist’s work is going to be judged on its own merit.”
But Ms. Kobayashi said interest in the field in Japan looks set to grow.
“There are signs showing this progress already visible. I think the possibility of a national museum dedicated to the field is within the realm of possibility.”
She adds optimistically: “No matter what your circumstance may be, we all have the potential to be creators.”
“Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan” is on until June 30 at the Wellcome Collection.