“Polka-Dot Princess” Yayoi Kusama illuminated the links between creativity and mental illness with her arrival on the New York pop art scene in 1957.
More recently the wave of artistry, called art brut, is catching on in Tokyo, where a number of artists with intellectual handicaps or mental disorders will place their pieces on display for a sale at an art gallery in Tokyo’s posh Omotesando district.
The exhibition titled “Art Brut? Outsider Art? Or…?” will run from March 9 through April 2. Artists participating in the gallery suffer from a variety of mental conditions, such as autism, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia.
The goal is to attract a wide range of people, including those previously unfamiliar with the art world, while providing a forum for understanding people often marginalized in Japanese society.
“You need no prior knowledge in understanding the pieces. You just have to feel them with your heart in your own way and simply enjoy them,” said Shino Sugimoto, 49, the president of art sales and management consulting firm Foster Inc. who is organizing the exhibition.
Some of the works of the roughly two-dozen artists include a cat portrait covered in mandala-esque designs; killer whales and dolphins swimming together in a clear blue ocean; and a vividly colored portrait of a blonde with a devious smile.
Sugimoto, whose older brother suffers from an intellectual disability, has had years of experience working at galleries in Tokyo, but she considered the latest exhibition a job for which she is uniquely qualified because of her background.
“I want to bring these people to the center stage. Their works are powerful and too precious to be overlooked, but since they don’t know their own worth they require someone to intervene and make sure (the artwork) is not thrown away,” Sugimoto said.
“Art brut,” a French term meaning “raw art,” refers to art created outside of the established art scene. It was coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet and later labeled “outsider art” by art critic Roger Cardinal. In Japan, the term has often been used to refer to art done by people with handicaps, in particular.
Sugimoto said she also wants to question through the latest exhibition “If there is a point in categorizing their artwork,” adding her goal is to eventually hold an exhibition displaying their works together with contemporary art pieces.
According to Sugimoto and other art experts, Vincent Van Gogh, who is believed to have suffered from various forms of mental illness, is an art brut artist as is Kusama, known for her polka dot motifs that she has used to cope with intense audio-visual hallucinations from an early age.
“I believe it is possible that ‘art brut’ will open a new market (in Japan). People who have never thought of owning an art piece might think they want to buy one rather than buying an expensive bag because the piece makes them feel warm and happy,” she said, adding that prices for the artwork start from about ¥30,000.
Michiko Matsumoto, 43, is one of the artists whose work will appear at the event.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Matsumoto joined Studio COOCA in 2010, a social welfare organization that promotes artistic activities for people with mental disabilities in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, where she began creating a series of artworks using her pet cat as the primary motif.
“I cannot live without (my cat) Hoppe. I feel relaxed when I see Hoppe’s face at night,” she said, while filling small spaces of intricate designs drawn over the outline of a cat with random colors she picked from a large bag full of acrylic paints. “I am really happy that my works will be exhibited,” she said.
She has drawn hundreds of pieces of Hoppe at the studio, completing one in less than a day, and aspires to one day have “a public bath in New York covered in Hoppe’s drawings.”
Taro Ito, 27, who is autistic and belongs to the same studio, enjoys drawing marine animals, mostly killer whales, as his key motif for his collage pieces. He usually works at the studio without taking breaks.
Aside from his marine art, Ito cuts cardboard boxes into “special lucky charms” and anxiously tells people around him about a killer whale named Bingo, which died at a Nagoya aquarium in 2014.
Other pieces appearing at the exhibition include a black-and-white pencil drawing of men and women embracing each other by Masaru Inoue and chic portraits of models on runways by Daiki Chazono.
Sugimoto said there is a “common restlessness” she finds among art brut pieces, which may resonate with some people who feel uncomfortable being “cast in a mold” in a conformist society.
“We will all be handicapped as we age,” becoming unable to do what we used to be able to do, she said. “As Japan becomes an increasingly gray society, I think a sophisticated society is one in which people with handicaps can comfortably come into the open and integrate naturally.”
Momoko Kitazawa, chief of staff at a COOCA’s studio, welcomes the exhibition as she believes it will serve as an occasion for the participants to connect with the outside world.
“Selling their art work means they have to go outside, and by connecting with the society, they can establish more relationships,” she said, although noting not all artists with such disabilities take interest in selling their works. “I believe connecting with them will help other people without disabilities as well,” she said.
The public’s attention was drawn to people living in isolation with mental disabilities after a former caretaker of a welfare facility for the severely disabled went on a stabbing rampage last July, killing 19 and injuring 26 others at the institution in rural Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
While the Japanese government is actively working to establish a more inclusive society for such individuals, major welfare facilities for the severely disabled have been created in places distant from cities since the 1960s. Those with less severe handicaps have also been directed to attend special schools rather than regular schools.
Such policies have subsequently made the disabled less visible in the society, making them an unfamiliar presence for others, caretakers and supporters say. But exhibitions can be a gateway to change, Kitazawa said.
“It is inevitable that people would think people with disabilities are strange and scary when they see, for example, someone agitated and shouting in a station. … But if they meet these people who are making artworks, they can come to understand them.”
“Art Brut? Outsider Art? Or…?” will be held at Eye of Gyre in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, from March 9 to April 2 (11 a.m.-8 p.m.). For more information, visit www.gyre-omotesando.com.