Review **** Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan at The Wellcome Collection

Rating- ****

Art tourism is something that blights London. With the influx of tourists to the capital during the impending summer season, the museums know that now is the time to pull out the big international names and pull in the big crowds. This summer you can see a David Bowie exhibition at the V&A or Lowry at Tate Britain. They’re safe choices for both viewers and the museums, but for people looking for something less about big names and more about the art itself, it can all be a bit uninspiring.

Thank God, then, for museums like the Wellcome Collection which continue to go against the grain and instead offer genuinely interesting and insightful exhibitions. Their current offering is the precise antidote to name dropping and celebrity artists, rather it precisely seeks out unknown art and artists. Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is a celebration of those who are not just under the radar of mainstream art, but utterly beyond it. Souzou is a word that has no direct equivalent in English but a dual meaning in Japanese; written in one way it means creation and in another imagination. Both qualities are here in abundance.



The exhibition contains more than 300 pieces by 46 artists all of whom have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are residents or day patients at social welfare institutions across Japan.

The works were not designed to be exhibited or sold, most of them were never made with a public viewing in mind. Rather, they are products of individual patients’ art therapy; a common therapeutic resort in Japan.  



The Wellcome Collection explain at the exhibit that the phrase Outsider Art is “an imperfect approximation of a term that does not translate comfortably into English”. It approximates the philosophical term ‘art brut‘; that which is raw, uncooked and uncontaminated by culture.

Amongst the highly original works on offer are spiked ceramics depicting sea monsters and mythical demons, pyjama suits festooned with foodstuff and an army of action figures made out of twist ties which fasten bin bags.



As the works are all obscure and unknown, the exhibition could have easily been quite overwhelming and confusing as it flits between methods, styles and subjects. However, the clear curating from Shamita Sharmacharja and the careful grouping of the work into themes such as relationships, language and culture avoids the show being drifting into chaos. 

Rather, the exhibition provides an interesting and exciting alternative to the big shows at the moment. It posits insights on what it is to be an ‘outside’ from the mainstream art world, as well as the relationship between creativity and insanity. 

It just goes to show that to find truly engaging exhibition experiences, it pays to look far beyond the well beaten tracks of the tried and tested London galleries. Embodying the Japanese proverb, “the most beautiful flowers often bloom in hidden places”.

Click here for more information on the Wellcome Collection and its exhibitions.

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