Asia Center’s exhibition explores art, disability, and mental health

Photo by Chie Mitsui

4 min read

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.

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The directors of the two workshops, Guo Haiping and Yamashita Masato, then presented the history, guiding principles, daily practices, and future plans of their respective workshops. They both insisted on the necessity of refraining from intervening in the creative processes of the artists. They also emphasized how such artistic practices noticeably improved the quality of life of their creators, while also being powerful tools to fight against widespread stigma toward people with mental disabilities and mental illness in their respective societies.

The second panel focused more specifically on the social and legal issues associated with disability and mental illness in China and Japan. This included examples from the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, the visual impairment accommodations on Chinese high school final exams, and an account of the changing state of mental health care in China and beyond.

Exhibition-related events continued the following day with a presentation by Raphael Koenig of museum holdings related to mental health and self-taught art at the Harvard Art Museums’ Art Study Center. Art collector David Barrett ’71 also spoke about a number of major works of self-taught art that he and his wife Didi donated to the Harvard Art Museums in 2011. Andrew Edlin, director of the Outsider Art Fair in New York, shared insights into the latest developments in the field of self-taught and outsider art. This was followed by the U.S. premiere of “Jizo Libido,” a documentary film about Atelier Yamanami and a Q&A with the film’s director Yoshiaki Kasatani.

Since the opening, the exhibition has been viewed by many visitors including a group of young students from the Boston Higashi School, the Boston branch of an international school devoted to children with autism. Led by their teacher Chie Mitsui, who also acted as an interpreter during the exhibition’s symposium, the group was encouraged to pursue their own art practices with renewed enthusiasm.

The exhibition will be on view at CGIS South Concourse through March 25. For more information please visit the website.