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Souzou is a word which has no direct equivalent in English but a dual meaning in Japanese: written in one way – 創造 – it means creation and in another – 想像 – imagination. Both meanings allude to a force by which new ideas are born and take shape in the world. In the context of this exhibition, Souzou refers to the practice of 46 self-taught artists living and working within social welfare facilities across Japan. 

The phrase ‘Outsider Art’ is an imperfect approximation of another term that does not translate comfortably into English. Coined by British academic Roger Cardinal in 1972, ‘Outsider Art’ follows French artist Jean Dubuffet’s theory of art brut, formulated in the mid-1940s, meaning a ‘raw art’, ‘uncooked’ or uncontaminated by culture. ‘Outsider Art’ has since become an internationally recognised term, commonly used to describe work made by artists who have received little or no tuition but produce work for the sake of creation alone, without an audience in mind, and who are perceived to inhabit the margins of mainstream society. The artists in this exhibition have been diagnosed with a variety of different cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illnesses, and are residents or day attendees of specialist care institutions.  

Outsider Art has followed different trajectories in Europe and Japan. In Europe, it developed in tandem with the discipline of psychiatry, with a handful of doctors collecting their patients’ works as diagnostic aids from the 1850s onwards. Most notably, in his 1922 study Artistry of the Mentally Ill, the German art historian turned psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn laid the foundations of a theory in which the works were judged as potent creative acts in and of themselves rather than being symptomatic of illness. Around the same time, those in avant-garde artistic circles, such as the Surrealists, began to take an active interest in what they saw as expressions of the subconscious by psychiatric patients, children and so-called ‘primitive’ non-Western cultures. These factors contributed to Dubuffet’s anti-establishment ideology of art brut and coincided with developments in psychiatry after World Wars I and II, including the rise of art therapy and occupational therapy, which were pioneered during the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers.   

In Japan, Outsider Art has been more closely aligned with public health and education reform from 1945, when, as in Britain, a highly developed social welfare system was established. Before this, there were isolated instances of ‘discoveries’ of ‘Outsiders’ in the 1930s, such as self-taught architect Kinzo Watanabe and collage artist Kiyoshi Yamashita. Both were championed by psychiatrist Ryuzaburo Shikiba, who had previously published studies about the ‘artist genius’ in relation to Vincent van Gogh. However, it was the postwar work of educationalists such as Kazuo Itoga who paved the way for the production of personal artworks within an institutional context. Itoga is considered the grandfather of social welfare reform in Japan and was particularly active in the Shiga Prefecture in central Honshu, a region which remains at the forefront of social welfare policy in Japan. In 1947 he founded Omi Gakuen, the first facility for war orphans and children with disabilities. Revolutionary for its time, Omi Gakuen offered a free-form syllabus encompassing agriculture, education, medicine, psychology, art and literature.

The main emphasis of such institutions was on work, an essential component of Japanese life which informs every level of social interaction and is key to an individual’s identity. It was hoped that training people in workshops would improve their chances of finding employment, and a place in society, once they had left the institution. In 1954, artist Kazuo Yagi took over the ceramics workshop at Omi Gakuen, which had hitherto produced crockery. He insisted on his students’ right to self-expression, arguing that they should be allowed to produce non-functional objects of their choosing whenever they pleased, without being trained or directed to do so. This policy of ‘non-intervention’ in the creative process became a model for other social welfare institutions in Shiga, and eventually the rest of Japan. Omi Gakuen still exists, and many of the artists in this exhibition, such as Mitsuteru Ishino, Satoshi Nishikawa and Ryosuke Otsuji, attended this facility or other similar ateliers run by disciples of Yagi. 

This form of artistic practice has remained firmly embedded in the domain of social care in Japan rather than being integrated into an alternative art circuit with a collector base, as in Europe. This means that until recent years, work created in the institutions was seldom displayed. In 2004, the Borderless Art Museum NO-MA opened and radically changed the landscape of Outsider Art in Japan. Exhibiting alongside mainstream art, works that were made within a welfare context have become known to new audiences, both in Japan and abroad, and have attracted critical and commercial attention. The following year, the not-for-profit organisation Haretari Kumottari was founded and undertook an audit of all the artists creating work in welfare institutions in order to protect their rights and conserve the artworks. It is from this body of works that Souzou is formed.

Located within the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing, mainstream and marginality, the exhibition is presented in six overlapping sections which invite us to explore the processes of making, meaning and the larger social and cultural context of Outsider Art in Japan. ‘Language’ and ‘Making’ offer an introduction to some of the characteristics commonly ascribed to Outsider Art; while ‘Representation’ and ‘Relationships’ delve deeper into the subject matter represented within the work. Finally, ‘Culture’ and ‘Possibility’ question some of the preconceptions about Outsider Art and move towards a wider understanding of its diversity.

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