Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection

By Ben Miller | 12 April 2013

Exhibition preview: Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, Wellcome Collection, London, until June 30 2013

a drawing of a primitive male and female figure
Masao Obata, Untitled (Wedding). Pencil, coloured pencil, cardboard© Haretari-Kumottari
Sakiko Kono has spent 55 years in a residential facility. In homage to the staff and friends who’ve looked after her, she made a set of life-size doll doppelgangers in their honour.

They vary in size according to the affection she held for each figure. But the chances of them turning up in a British gallery might have seemed remote without a collaboration between Tokyo’s Social Welfare Organisation Aiseikai and Het Dolhuys – the Museum of Psychiatry in Haarlem.

The institutions decided to reflect the growing attention and praise being afforded to outsider art – works made by “self-taught artists” operating “at the margins of society” – by curating an exhibition which also aims to question perceptions of the medium itself.

The doll connection extends to the name of the Dutch museum, which translates as the Doll’s House Museum.

“It used to be a hospital for plague victims and people considered to be lepers,” explained Natalie Coe, from the Wellcome, calling the Haarlem display “remarkable and diverse” upon visiting it last year.

“It is also the initiator behind the Madness and the Arts festival. With themes like that, it was only a matter of time before the Wellcome Collection introduced itself.”

Coe described defining the Outsider genre as “clearly problematic”.

“There are well-known artists who have not had any training but are not considered Outsider artists,” she explained.

“Equally, there are artists who have experience of mental health problems that wouldn’t feature in an Outsider art exhibition.

“I was initially sceptical about it being used at all, given that it risks perpetuating a homogenous idea about what is ‘normal’. It’s also difficult to pin down exactly what it means, especially as it’s rarely a self-ascribed term.

“I feel more swayed by the genre itself now, and it is impossible to communicate anything without a label. I look forward to seeing what others think about this.”

It’s certainly offering an exhibit list unlike any other show you might see this year: among 300 items split across six themes, Masao Obata’s red crayons on carboard stem from a lifelong ambition to get married, and there are darker, even phobic portrayals of sexual urges, desire and gender elsewhere.

One of the artists, Toshiko Yamanishi, deals in kaleidoscopically expressive love letters to his mother, and Ryosuke Otsuji shapes ceramic lions. In an exhibition with a title meaning creation or imagination, the aim is to inspire a wider understanding in spite of any gaps in interpretation.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday, 11am-6pm Sunday). Admission free. Visit the collection on Twitter @wellcometrust.
Watch the trailer:

More pictures:

A photo of a small clay doll in a brown jacket and black trousers
Shoichi Koga, Seitenmodoki (Ganesha (Nandikeshvara)-oid) (2006)© Collection of Shoichi Koga
A photo of a white doll holding a pink baby
Sakiko Kono, Naked family (1997). Fabric, felt, thread, wool yarn, acrylic-wool yarn, polyester cotton, glue© Collection of Sakiko Kono
An image of a pencil and crayon drawing of a woman in red and black
Nobuji Higa, Naked woman (2011). Pencil, coloured pencil, watercolour paper© Collection of Nobuji Higa
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