Souzou Outsider Art From Japan at The Wellcome Collection

Souzou Outsider Art from Japan

Available for viewing until 30th June, the Wellcome Collection’s Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan exhibition features work by men and women alienated from traditional society either through mental illness, age or social misfortune.

Initiallity used as a way of contextualising the work of French artist Jean Dubuffet, the term “outsider art” was coined in 1972 by the English art critic Roger Cardinal and implies, as the title might suggest, a certain “otherness” inherent in the work.

It is a brave and challenging exhibition featuring work that is all the more unsettling for its roots in the familiar context of the everyday. From everyday anxiety – Takako Shibata‘s series of paintings, Mother, featuring the figure of the series growing larger and larger in the frame as the moments and days of her absence are counted – to the specifically Japanese – Daisuke Kibushi‘s recreated movie posters and Hiroyuki Komatsu‘s summations of soap operas, replete with NHK logo in a top corner.

On display are icons of Takashi Miike‘s Great Yokai War refashioned as lovingly carved statues, Shota Katsube‘s collection of mecha and characters from anime and tokusatsu, all made from coloured twist-ties, and Norimitsu Kokubo‘s intensely detailed and colourful representations of real life locations repurposed by his imagination. 

Alongside these broad and bold images of the surrounding world as viewed from a distance are images of sexuality and intercourse idealised as perfection (Masao Obata‘s Untitled (wedding) and the artist’s ambition of marriage), observation (M.K.‘s Lady with Hole, an illustration of a woman drawn upon the side of a cardboard box, the handle hold of which acts as a visual stand in for her vagina) and horror (Marie Suzuki‘s portraits of twisted bodies, mewling mutant babies, malformed penises and swollen vaginas, rivers of milk and ejaculate).


It is difficult to stand in such a place and not be aware of the narrow lines between here and there, us and ‘the other world’. The unusual is often a mirror to our everyday lives.

It is usually said that the true artist is driven by despair or tragedy, plagued by inner demons. Often a series of examples – from Kurt Cobain to Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and his character head sculptures – are rolled out. We are told that to be creative, to be talented, you must first bargain away happiness and contentment. Yet what if true creation is expression, does that mean that all art lies in horror?

The answer is of course, no.

There is a joy amidst the work here, a contentment present in the dedication and message of the work that is not solely limited to sorrow and disgust. There is no duality here.336795af-88e3-4047-a027-e18e31f33926_2_0

Despite being in separate locations, at the heart of two separate conditions with two differing lexicons of expression and circumstance, the feeling is still universal.

This is what makes the Wellcome Collection’s Souzou so compelling. Within the sacred and the profane of the gathered subjects of the exhibit, the contrast of bleeding and engorged sex organs and colourfully annotated and illustrated recaps of baseball dramas and morning television, beautiful ceramic sea monsters and letters of adoration composed of kanji and kana spiralling out in curls of colour, there is a sense that these are the two forces inside all of us and that in truth, they are one; that this is what it is to be a human.

That communication denied is sometimes the loudest voice.

If we needed a grand statement to draw from this, then the lesson learnt here is that it is not madness that drives the artist but the human condition.


The Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan exhibition is at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London and runs till 30th June.

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