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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

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image image Beyond the Mainstream: A Museum Without Borders
Colin Smith
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Shisuko Tohmoto, Akihiro Murayama (the gender-bending performer better known as Akihiro Miwa). Photo by Tomomi Saeki

Borderless Art Museum NO-MA occupies a converted 1930 merchants' house and kura storehouse, one of many beautiful examples of traditional architecture in a historical preservation district in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture. Noma is the name of the residence's original owners, and "borderless" describes a commitment to exhibiting art outside the mainstream, including works by persons with disabilities or mental illnesses alongside those by contemporary artists. The museum, operated by Social Welfare Organization Glow (formerly the Shiga Prefectural Social Welfare Organization), opened in 2004 with the primary mission of promoting the creativity of people with disabilities and exhibiting their creations. It frequently holds exhibitions of Art Brut (lit. "raw art" -- a term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet for works by those outside the bounds of official culture), also known as outsider art. Art by psychiatric patients is a classic example, but there are many other categories, including folk art, visionary art, and naïve or self-taught art. A recent exhibition at NO-MA can be said to fall in this last category. Girls Who Painted Their Everyday Life (which closed on 29 July) brought together works by three women all born during the 1910s, all alive until recently, and all of whom discovered art late in life.

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The museum is housed in a renovated merchants' residence in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture. Photo by Nobuo Onishi

One day when she was in her fifties, Shisuko Tohmoto (1913-2005) used a kitchen knife to scrape the paint off a large canvas by her son and started work on her own painting, one so brimming with joie de vivre that the son got over his initial shock at the destruction of his own work. Soon the two were living and painting together. Later Tohmoto moved to a public housing complex where one small room served as her studio. There she made art full-time, often from dawn to dusk, into her nineties, producing paintings large and small as well as ceramic objects. Her works, with themes from nature, childhood memories, and her surroundings, overflow with the joy of life and creation, as if energy and wide-eyed innocence had surged back to make up for a youth and middle age of struggle and hardship.

 

Shisuko Tohmoto, Aloe Flowers in Winter, 1995. Photo by Yo Shiota

 

Ceramics by Shisuko Tohmoto. Photo by Tomomi Saeki

Ei Hijikata (1914-2016) began painting at 82 and continued past the age of 100. Her works, too, have the signature charm of self-taught art -- brilliant colors, flatness, a tendency to fill all the available space -- and often feature animals, childhood memories, and everyday occurrences. Like the other artists in this show, she lived through World War II and endured various hardships. A particularly poignant watercolor shows Nagoya as a sea of flames in the distance, while in the foreground are the tiny figures of people fleeing, including her and her husband with their belongings and children on a cart.

 

Ei Hijikata, Memory, 2005. Photo by Yo Shiota

 

Ei Hijikata, World War II. Photo by Colin Smith

Sumiko Naka (1916-2015) also discovered art late, at age 78, and made up for lost time by prolifically turning out small works, many of which make up Grandma Sumi's Diary of Memories -- of swimming in the sea back when the Osaka-Kobe shoreline was unspoiled sandy beach, or having to quit school and work as a telephone operator due to her family's finances, or people in air-raid hoods listening to an emergency radio broadcast -- always rendered with a cheerfully whimsical air, as if the long decades had turned all the joys and sorrows of her youth into a picture book with a happy ending.

 

Sumiko Naka, from Grandma Sumi's Diary of Memories. Photo by Yo Shiota

 

Also from Grandma Sumi's Diary of Memories. Foreground: "I was born August 16, 1916, the day hell opened up . . ." (a reference to the traditional Obon festival). Background: "Dad chased Mom with a scissors when he didn't like her new haircut . . ." Photo by Colin Smith

All three women had family members, among them professional artists, who recognized the value of their work and carefully preserved it. We are lucky to have access to these free-spirited, entertaining and affecting works, and one wonders how many other self-taught artists might be undiscovered out there. Presenting this art, which is not professional or trying to be -- and also does not fit the usual mold of Art Brut (in practice, often synonymous with art by those with mental disabilities or illnesses) -- is right in line with NO-MA's admirable philosophy of art without borders.

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The shady front garden of Borderless Art Museum NO-MA on a sultry summer day. Photo by Tomomi Saeki

Visitors to NO-MA will also enjoy the lovingly restored building itself, and will want to explore the rest of the Omihachiman Preservation District, which contains not only many wonderful traditional Japanese buildings, but also several fascinating examples of architectural East-West fusion by Kansas-born William Merrell Vories (1880-1964; during World War II he became a naturalized Japanese citizen named Mereru Hitotsuyanagi). Stroll or take a leisurely boat ride along the photogenic canal that served as a major trade artery when Omihachiman was a thriving merchant city. Today it is pleasantly drowsy, highly picturesque, and home to a unique museum with consistently intriguing exhibitions.

All images are provided by or displayed with the permission of Borderless Art Museum NO-MA.


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Borderless Art Museum NO-MA
  The next scheduled exhibition (25 August - 17 September) presents photographs by Nobuo Onishi of artisans, Art Brut creators, and self-taught Buddhist sculptors at work.
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Colin Smith
Colin Smith is a translator and writer and a long-term resident of Osaka. His published writing includes the travel guide Getting Around Kyoto and Nara (Tuttle, 2015), and his translations, primarily on Japanese art, have appeared in From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and many museum and gallery publications in Japan.
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