Care in Japan

Artwork made by Japanese patients in care comes to London

Much of the work on show at Wellcome Collection, including an embroidered suit, was produced in therapy classes


An artwork by 17-year-old Japanese artist Norimitsu Kokubo, Shanghai Disneyland of the Future.

Works of art made of scraps of thread, off-cuts of paper, and cardboard boxes salvaged from a care home’s kitchen and carefully smoothed flat have gone on display at the Wellcome Collection in London, in the first exhibition in the UK of Japanese “outsider art”.

When curator Shamita Sharmacharja visited Japan to speak to the artists who made the works she found them slightly surprised that their work was considered art. To them it was just what they do, often in almost all their waking hours.

“In Japan, the concept of outsider art does not really exist,” she said. “It is something they are learning about from European interest in it.”

Outsider art was coined as a term to describe art created beyond mainstream culture, such as in mental health institutions, although it now more generally defines work made by artists without art school training and outside the market. In the Wellcome show all the work has been made in institutions or day care centres.

As well as tapestries and paintings, there is an army of diminutive superheroes made from bin ties, pottery lion dogs with bristling manes, and life-size rag dolls representing people who have been kind to Sakiko Kono in her 55 years in an institution.

None of the works was made to be exhibited, and some of the artists gave their treasures up reluctantly. Takahiro Shimoda, who makes suits painted and embroidered with his favourite foods, sent his fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies pyjamas, but insisted on keeping the ones he likes best. Shota Katsube, the wire tie sculptor, loaned a collection of hundreds of tiny warriors, but couldn’t bear to part with an even more elaborate piece.

The youngest artist in the show, 17-year-old Norimitsu Kokubo, was uneasy about sending his huge map of the world because it’s not finished after two years of solid work. Although made up of hundreds of thousands of minutely detailed drawings, of skyscrapers, Ferris wheels, train tracks, car parks, prisons and office blocks – he has sourced images of many buildings on the internet, so the works of some well-known architects including Zaha Hadid are quite recognisable – he has only covered 8.3 metres of his intended 10 metre scroll, and was worried that it would look silly. It doesn’t.

Some of the work has been made at the artists’ homes, but most comes from workshops and studios in care centres, where art is considered to have therapeutic powers. The staff are charged to give free rein to the creators, without giving any direction as to what they should make.

Many of the imposing ceramics, some looking like ancient museum pieces, were made in the pottery at Omi Gakuen, which used to make domestic crockery until it was taken over in 1954 by the renowned ceramics artist Kazuo Yagi.

This is the last major exhibition at the Wellcome before the interior of the building, a victim of its own success, is torn apart in a £17.5m project to create new display and public spaces. It opened five years ago expecting around 100,000 visitors a year, but has been attracting five times as many.

Recent blockbuster exhibitions have often been gory, with shows devoted to brain surgery, open-heart surgery and, most recently, death – which pulled in more than 3,000 visitors a day in its last, packed weekends. Souzou is a gentler, happier experience.

This time the walls are blazing with colour, despite the fact that some of the artists have had desperately sad lives. Kenichi Yamazaki, who makes exquisitely coloured blueprints of fantasy engineering projects, pierced with tiny holes so they are as lacy as cobwebs, explains in an interview filmed in his hospital that he used to work as a building labourer in Tokyo, “but I worked too much and I broke down”. Masao Obata’s elegant crayon drawings on cardboard represent to him his yearning to be married, now unlikely to be realised.

The exhibition has deliberately been given an untranslatable title, Souzou, which in Japanese can mean either creation or imagination, depending on how it is written.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan opens today, and closes on Sunday 30 June.