Discovering Outsider Art

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
“Dying Papa”, by Tim Brown. Oil on Wood

The man lies rigid on a bed. Or is it a bench? There is no mattress on the bed/bench, but there’s a pillow under his head and another, flatter and smaller one, under his feet. The sheet covering him is too small and his feet stick out. The lights above the bed/bench cast sickly grey shadows on the walls, that appear to hover over the man. Are the shadows angels of death, I wonder?

I am drawn to this compelling artwork titled “Dying Papa” by Tim Brown, one of the many artworks on display at the exhibition on “Breaking the Chains of Stigma“, at the Institute for Contemporary Indian Art, Mumbai. This first-of-its-kind exhibition in India, which presents a global overview of mental health and a selection of “Outsider Art“, has been conceptualised by the Museum Dr. Guislain of Ghent in Belgium (and brought to India in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Janssen Pharmaceuticals).

The information given along with the above artwork says that Brown (b.1923) is an African-American who grew up poor in the religious, rural and segregated South of the United States and worked in menial jobs. Brown started painting when he realised that he had no visuals from his childhood to share with his children. An untrained artist, Brown painted from his childhood memories on rough wooden boards or planks. After Brown’s wife died and his children left home, he withdrew from society at large and preferred to communicate with the outside world only through his paintings.

As I read this information, I realise that I have just been introduced an unknown and new genre of art (for me, that is) — “Outsider Art” — and one that sounds exciting ! But what  exactly is this Outsider Art? A walk through the exhibition acquaints me with this genre and how it has developed over the years.

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