Contemporary Outsider Art: the Global Context

The Contemporary Outsider Art: the Global Context conference took place at Melbourne University, Australia from 23 – 25 October 2014.  Here Executive Artistic Director of Project Ability, Elisabeth Gibson and artist Tanya Raabe talk about their experience of the event.

As Associate Artist with Project Ability, I recently joined forces with Elisabeth Gibson, Executive Artistic Director, Project Ability, Glasgow, to collaborate on a series of conversations with contemporary outsider artists exploring a new critical language towards the definition of their practice.

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We were very excited when we got the call to present this research at the Contemporary Outsider Art: the Global Context, Melbourne University, Australia. Trains, plains, automobiles and not forgetting the essential PA, booked and off we went to Australia!

The research involved having some of the most extraordinarily enlightening and refreshing conversations with artists from Project Ability’s Re:Connect programme and Celf o Gwmpas about their own sense of self. Looking at defining a developing critical language with which to express their practice and give back ownership of their work in a contemporary outsider art landscape.

The artists all had a great sense of pride in their artistry and a strong sense of solidarity and belonging within a creative identity. It also seemed the role of the supported studio spaces at both Project Ability and Celf o Gwmpas  played a vital piece of the jigsaw for the artists to live as practising artists: providing them with peer support as well as professional artistic development, exhibiting opportunities home and away whilst supporting them to apply for their own project funding . So I began to wonder how I should represent these conversations; these ideals, at a conference that would be examining contemporary outsider art from a global context. A massive ask!

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 Quotes from the research…

“Outsider art – I dont think we should be on the outside should we? You are either an artist or youre not, it shouldnt matter about your disabilities.”

“I dont like labels, Im a person in my own right, but it is giving me access to exhibitions.”

Is it outside of what? Whats Insider Art then? The term Outsider Art, in terms of the sound of it… I kind of like it. I like the idea of Outsider Art. To me its outside of the mainstream. Its people doing things outside of the mainstream.”

I would advise caution as well because there is a danger in personally investing in that Outsider label and saying, This is it; this is the ticket for me, this could take me quite farthen maybe three years down the line suddenly its a wilderness; theres nothing there. So my instinct is to be cautious, but also optimism as well. It could go quite well, you know?

“I consider myself kind of an outsider. … I think it is a whole lot of mythologising about people’s lives as well, you know, and I want to do that bit myself. I want to mythologise myself!”

So the conference began…

I was full of excitement and anticipation about being at the conference in Australia and presenting myself, my work as an artist and the collaborative research I’d done with Elisabeth. At the conference I spent lots of time chatting, networking and listening to others in conversation whilst I captured unscreened moments of passion, will and testament of individuals and panel discussions on my drawings on my iPad.

There were three major themes to the conference and these included: The Practices of Outsider artists, Collections of Outsider Art and Curated Exhibitions plus Outsider Art History and Theory.

It was a heady mix of die-hard academic presentations and key note speakers and global contexts exploring arts practices in supported art studios in China, Cambodia USA Israel/UK and Australia. Which was absolutely fascinating. I was especially interested in the supported studios that were coming from totally different cultures. It seemed to me that there could still be a common theme within all of the studios presented that connected them globally. That is enthusiasm for the artistry and the artist and a commonality of supporting the artist to make the work as they do naturally. There could even be commonalities in the aesthetic of some of the work as often learning and developmental disabilities are similar globally too.

here were also talks, panels discussions, comedic anecdotes and film screenings from artist studios and artists themselves. I really enjoyed hearing Carly Findlay talk about how she had used her experiences as a disabled woman with a facial disfigurement to create a blog and social network that supports others in a disabling world. The artists from The Dax Centre; artists with mental health issues identifying themselves as outsider artists, was comedic, ethereal and damn right down to earth. Brilliant! Some people found their continuous use of the word ‘mad’ un-PC! I myself saw this as a positive sign of ownership of their identity as people with a living experience of mental health issues and a sense of self within a disability art politic.

I did find the opening keynote lecture by Lynne Cooke, Senior Curator, Special Projects in Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, both mesmerising and fascinating. I was definitely intrigued by her physicality and the delivery of her lecture. Whist drawing I listened to Lynne tell us about the declassification of labels in order to create an even playing field on which all artists and participants within mainstream galleries could engage equally. It was reminiscent and aspirational. As a disabled artist and self taught artist our work as outside of the mainstream could and should be seen with a focus on difference and otherness. How hard a concept can this still be for the critics, theorists, curators and artists of contemporary art to engage with? Yet we still battle to get our work seen  with a recognised discourse and on equal terms by the mainstream. A subtext running throughout was the question “Is this beginning to happen”?


The discourse of the Outsider Artist continued to be debated with vigour throughout the conference; in the corridors, queuing for tea, over lunch and well into the night.

We were presenting in Stream 1, PRACTICES OF OUTSIDER ARTISTS. Our session was a panel lead discussion on the topic of Outsider Art or Social Inclusion? Facilitating art, positioning the studio.

Presentations from myself as well as Art Enables USA, Project Ability, Glasgow, NIAD Arts Centre USA were enlightening, passionate and informative. Plus I was still seeing that common denominator that seems to be connecting us all. Enthusiasm for the artistry and the artist and a commonality of supporting the artist to make the work as they do naturally. It was interesting that some of the studios embraced the notion of Outsider Art and actively used the term as a form of artistic identity and others did not. But for me as an individual presenting myself, my art and my mentoring work with disabled artists, plus the collaboration with Project ability – I began to question what and where I was coming from. Why did I doubt myself, I’m not sure! Jet lag I think! Anyway I put my thoughts in order and told it as it is. After all I am a straight talking Yorkshire lass with a disability art politic!

And it worked! Our panel discussion went from disability art politics within work produced by artists in supported studios, to exploring the notions of ownership, arts practice and the rights of the artists, artworks within the supported art studios and its representation in the mainstream.

Tanya Are you an Outsider artist’.……was one of the questions.

My answer was “NO! ……….My work is embedded in a disability art politic and centres around my sense of self and that of a disability identity! Therefore I see myself as an artist /disabled artist. Both identities are as important as the other.”

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Highlights of the conference…

There were many. I enjoyed capturing many of these moments on my iPad whilst listening intently to the Panel discussions by Dax artists, talks from Cambodia and China Outside the frame work of western art, keynote speeches by Lynne Cooke, Prof. Colin Rhodes, James Brett of Museum of Everything; an enigma and lover of the art made by artists outside of the mainstream, “the self taught, the stuffers, the makers, the scribblers……..”

One of the biggest highlights for me was our visit to Arts Project Australia. I completely felt at home entering into a studio with other artists creating, chatting and totally zoned in on the making of their art. Again seeing so many artistic processes and themed work that culturally connected us as artists and as disabled artists really excited me. Whether we were outsiders or insiders it didn’t matter. It was again that commonality of just being artists that naturally connected us in that time and space!  I saw artists making work about Frieda Kahlo, Elvis and work that had colonial historical content. For me I kept this visit in my mind throughout the conference constantly drawing from it. As if it wasn’t for the existence of the artists, these natural creators the whole debate wouldn’t exist!

So what’s next? Post conference…

For me new partnerships are about to emerge! I’m very excited about joining forces with Anna Arstein-Kerslake, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne to develop a project on human rights of disabled people’s right to access culture. Plus I’m delving into a research and development into the commonalities and differences of supported artists practices and supported studio practices in USA, including visits to Amy Taub from Creativity Explored and Deb Dyer from the NIAD art centre both in San Francisco and Mary Liniger from Washington.

– Tanya Raabe Associate Artist, Project Ability, Glasgow

Melbourne is a long way to go for a conference……..but the time and effort paid off.  Co-hosted by Arts Project Australia and the University of Melbourne; topics for discussion ranged across artist support systems, social justice, studio practices, public engagement, historical perspectives of outsider art, global contexts.  As well as over forty presenters, it was a sell out with over three hundred delegates attending from across Australia.  The gaps between sessions were filled with discussion, debate and conversation, business cards were traded, numbers taken, connections made, partnerships formed.  The delegates were interested and interesting, questioning and informed.  There was a disconnect between the academics and their anthropologist approach, delving into historical backgrounds and social environments and artists and support studios moving forward and establishing new networks of support to allow people to make work, develop their practice and enjoy working in a social space, alongside their peers on their own terms.  Collecting and curating, chipping away at hierarchies artificially generated by market forces. These are big topics and the conference didn’t shy away from talk that was controversial, contradictory and celebratory.  Lasting impressions, it is still too early, follow up discussions are ongoing and conversations are still evolving.

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Postscript: on my return journey I stopped in Kuala Lumpur and visited United Voice, a self-advocacy society for persons with learning disabilities.  United Voice support talented artists, many on the autistic spectrum, to produce beautiful work which is distinctly patriotic and Oceanic in its imagery.  United Voice are a small voluntary organisation which has identified some extraordinary artists and showcases their work promoting their inclusion in Malaysian society.

– Elisabeth Gibson, Executive Artistic Director, Project Ability, Glasgow

Our sincere thanks to Arts Project Australia and the University of Melbourne for hosting this event and to Creative Scotland for supporting our attendance.

Photos by Elisabeth Gibson and Tanya Raabe, drawings by Tanya Raabe

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