Souzou – Outsider Art at the Wellcome Gallery

Shinichi Sawada Sea MonsterYannick has been on at me for ages to go to the Wellcome Collection and I’ve resisted because I’m totally squeamish and anything to do with medicine and the insides of bodies is not for me. Which rather rules out the Wellcome Collection which is all about the development of medicine and medical science. But this week he managed to persuade me to go along to see Souzou – an exhibition of outsider art from Japan. Souzou, means both imagination and creation. So what’s it about? 

‘Outsider Art‘, apparently, is a term used to describe work made by untutored artists who are outside of mainstream society. Like the artists in this exhibition, who have a variety of different cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illnesses, and who live in or visit specialist care institutions. It’s a feature of the Japanese system that such artworks are seen as part of the social care system rather than being recognised as part of the art circuit, though that approach is now changing – hence this exhibition.

First impressions of the exhibition – it’s bigger than I expected, displayed in a gallery many art galleries would be proud of, on the left of the main entrance as you go in (so you can see it without seeing any of their permanent exhibition). On the right hand side is a very popular cafe and a shop selling some interesting books about Japan along with Japanese pottery.

Souzou at the Wellcome GalleryWe admired many of the works. This one, for example, where Toshiko Yamanishi creates kaleidoscopic love letters to her mother, using movement and colour instead of words:

Toshiko Yamanishi

or this one by Masao Obata, who works entirely in red crayon on cardboard, carefully rounding the edges into an oblong and depicting Aztec-like figures in stylised poses:

Masao Obata

The tiny figures which Shota Katsube makes from twist-ties for bin liners were beautifully laid out inside a glass-topped table:

Toshiko YamanishiShota Katsube a8b59bbf-2cbc-425a-81cd-8d57b1c1a19d_1_0 - Version 3

Norimitsu Kokubo’s fictional cityscapes show real places that the artist has never visited, only read about in newspapers and on the internet, like this on, titled The Economically Booming City of Tianjin, China:

Norimitsu KokuboThere were some attractive ceramics too – like this Okinawan Lion by Ryosuke Otsuji:

Ryosuke Otsuji

Or this Apple of Rabbits (wonderful title!)  by Satoshi Nishikawa:

Apple of Rabbits by Satoshi NishikawaBut as I went round the question that buzzed away in my head was – would we be seeing these works exhibited if their makers had not had some form of mental illness? In other words, is it art that can stand up on its own terms or not?

Well, some of it did and some of it didn’t. Sometimes I found myself more impressed by the ability to produce the work than the work itself. Not surprisingly – the point of the exhibition is to challenge us to think about the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing and mainstream and marginality.

But at the very end of the exhibition we came on a display case of Shinichi Sawada’s spiky ceramics. And I was blown away. So blown away, in fact, that I defied the ban on photography to take the picture at the top of this post, so that I could show you what attracted me. The sea monster has such a feeling of life and character, of being there before your very eyes. This is what art is all about, I thought. So I was pleased to discover I’m not the only one who thinks so – Sawada’s work is going to be exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Shinichi SawadaGo along and see what you think. The Wellcome Collection is on the Euston Road, just next to University College Hospital and I’m told the permanent collection is well worth a look too. Souzou continues until 30 June.

Images come from the Wellcome Collection website.

17 thoughts on “Souzou – Outsider Art at the Wellcome Gallery

  1. Interesting collection. That Okinawan lion looks terrifying, especially after having seen a vid on YouTube last night of two lions fighting – scary stuff! Great write up Fran! 🙂


  2. There are some very beautiful exhibits here. There are many painters (and other artists) who have suffered from mental illnesses (Gauguin, van Gogh, Goya, Munch, just too many to mention) but their art has taken front stage. It is a pity that the artists in your show did not have that break through, or perhaps, the timing isn’t right.


  3. I am very squeamish but I love the Wellcome collection (they also have a good library) and their permament exhibition is very interesting and not ‘graphic’ at all. I understand your reservations though… last time I have been there they had a temporary display of brains in jars!!


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