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Disabled artists carving out niche in Japan

by Makoto Sekiya

Kyodo

A growing number of people with disabilities are winning recognition artistically and commercially as their works of art and design find their way into more galleries and shops.

Last November, the Hikarie shopping mall in Shibuya held an exhibition and sale of artworks produced by disabled craftsmen, providing a glimpse of some their talents.

Among the works displayed were traditional “furoshiki” wrapping cloths designed by Kosuke Ota, a 33-year-old autistic man. Ota, who lives in Fukuoka, is a well established artist whose colorful, unique drawings have been featured at exclusive exhibitions since 2001.

Sanui Orimono Co., a maker of Hakata-ori woven fabrics in Fukuoka, adopted Ota’s designs for neckties as well as furoshiki wrappers. Katsuhiko Sanui, the company’s 38-year-old president, denies that they were selected for altruistic purposes, emphasizing his appreciation for Ota’s artistic talent.

“This is not out of compassion for disabled people or for the sake of publicity. I have seen in him an artist who can bring change to Hakata-ori,” Sanui said.

The company pays a 5 percent copyright fee to Ota for his work.

The artistic value of works by people with intellectual disabilities has long been recognized. In the late 1940s, French painter Jean Dubuffet became an outspoken supporter of unconventional artworks created by people outside the art establishment, including people with disabilities, dubbing them “art brut” (raw art).

The Borderless Art Museum NO-MA, which displays art brut works, was opened in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture, in 2004, after the recent establishment of similar institutions in Kyoto, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures. Another museum in Fukushima Prefecture, which opened on June 1, has added to this growing number of exhibition venues.

In 2010, around 800 art brut works, including pottery and pictures produced by disabled Japanese artists, were unveiled to the public at an exhibition in Paris, drawing some 120,000 visitors.

The increasing popularity of works by disabled craftsmen has put a spotlight on issues related to the commercial side of their artistry, such as the lax enforcement of copyright that has sometimes led to exploitation. In an attempt to crack down on such abuses, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has recently set up consultation counters providing free advice on rights protection.

Able Art Company, jointly launched in 2007 by nonprofit organizations in Tokyo, Nara and Fukuoka, has taken on the role of middleman between some disabled artists and companies using their works, implementing a clear system for the payment of copyright fees.

A total of 86 artists are now registered with the company, and around 7,800 of their works have been made available for commercial use. User companies pay 5 percent of their sales to Able Art, which then passes on 30 percent of its take to artists after deducting overhead. The most successful artists earn around ¥500,000 annually via this arrangement.

“Disabled people recognize their own worth when their works are appreciated in society,” said Yumiko Shibasaki, an Able Art official. “When we see them creating their works with pride, we feel rewarded for supporting them.”