Harvard’s first exhibition of works produced in art workshops for people with disabilities (and only the second devoted to self-taught artists) “Eye Eye Nose Mouth: Art, Disability, and Mental Illness in Shiga-ken, Japan, and Nanjing, China” opened last month at the Harvard Asia Center (CGIS South Concourse).
In preparation for the exhibition, co-curators Raphael Koenig and Benny Shaffer — who share a passion for exploring the edges of the art world, from independent cinema to self-taught art — spent several weeks at both Nanjing Outsider Art Studio in China and Atelier Yamanami in Japan in the summer of 2018.
The workshops, operating outside of psychiatric or medical institutions, attempt to improve the living conditions and promote broader acceptance of people with mental disabilities and mental illness in their respective societies. Mental illness and mental disability are particularly complex issues in both China and Japan, due to prevalent social stigma, and, in the case of mainland China, a relative lack of state-supported care facilities.
At the exhibition’s opening reception Karen Thornber, the Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard Asia Center, touched on the urgency of producing more scholarship on questions of disability and mental health, and providing insights into the scope and extent of these issues in East Asia. She was followed by a presentation by the show’s curators, who emphasized the necessity for providing careful contextualization and focus on the processes and conditions of production at both art workshops.