Nonconformers: Undoing Labels and Preconceptions of “Outsider Art” in Britain

By Lisa Slominski

In this blog, London-based art curator, writer and cultural producer, Lisa Slominski, introduces her new book Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists, and explores the ways in which Britain’s art establishment is reckoning with a growing appetite for more diverse voices, and increased representation of artists operating ‘outside the cultural mainstream’.

Who are the individuals, galleries, studios and non-profits disrupting our historic preconceptions about self-taught artists, and how are they making much-needed space for less traditional routes into the commercial art world?

Beginnings: Roger Cardinal and the Hayward Gallery

Fifty years ago, in 1972, British art historian Roger Cardinal published Outsider Art, a book that over the decades has become highly influential as the English introduction to artists considered outside of the cultural mainstream, and its title has become a taxonomic legacy used to cultivate an ever-expanding genre. Following the book’s release, the seminal yet controversial exhibition Outsiders: An Art without Precedent or Tradition was on view at the Hayward Gallery, London during the spring of 1979. This exhibition, curated by Cardinal and Victor Musgrave, expanded on Jean Dubuffet’s remit of Art Brut established in the 1940s, and Cardinal’s own work in Outsider Art.

Outsiders included 400 works by 42 artists from across Europe and America, including Aloïse Corbaz, Henry Darger, Madge Gill, Johann Hauser, Augustine Lesage, Martin Ramirez, Friedreich Schröder-Sonnenstern, August Walla, Scottie Wilson, Joseph E. Yoakum, and Anna Zemánkova. It was considered an ‘extreme’ exhibition and its funders, the Arts Council England, published a ‘cautionary note’ forwarding the main catalog. Written by Joanna Drew, then Director of Art, it stated: “we have been invaded, at our own invitation, by ‘outsiders’, we cannot be expected to accept entirely claims of artistic and spiritual dominance made on their behalf”. Drew continued with an affirmation of enthusiasm for the exhibition. The catalog’s introductory essay by curator Musgrave set forth the uneasiness of categorising the artists exhibited as ‘Outsider Artists’ and the blurriness of the genre itself. “The generic name is imprecise. It describes no movement, no school,” explains Musgrave. He expanded on this battle over language, stating and articulating his imprecise labelling of Scottie Wilson as a naive artist, his differentiation between ‘outsiders’ from ‘self-taught’, and reservations about including artist Henry Darger, given his work’s rich cultural references, whereas Dubuffet’s Art Brut was restricted to creative output “untouched by artistic culture” and “based solely on his own impulses”.

The complexities and imperfections of labels

My new book Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists re-examines 20th-century art history, with an exploratory reconsideration of many artists featured in Outsiders, as well as creatives previously defined in relation to Modern Primitives, l’Art Brut, Outsider Art, and Black Folk Art. I also introduce artists working internationally in the 21st century. Contributors such as John Maizels deep dive into key historical moments and explore the legacy of Roger Cardinal’s Outsider Art, whilst Cheryl Finley’s essay “What is Was, Black Folk Art in America” examines the context of African-American self-taught artists in the 1970s and 80s. I explore and grapple with a similar terminological debacle as Musgrave and Cardinal, but with the reflective sensibility of 2022. Migrating away from the term ‘Outsider’, I propose that even the notion of ‘self-taught’ often presents a further conditional circumstance – gender, race, poverty, mental health, disability – historically making these assignments of operating outside of the cultural mainstream far more complex than mere pretexts of training or relationship to the art world. To disrupt these preconceptions, the artists are presented within a context that continually defies presumptions about self-taught artists. Nonconformers also explores creative practices adjacent to exhibitions, be it environment building or spiritual-based practices. Importantly, the title of the book, Nonconformers, is not an attempt to rename or redefine a genre. The book proposes that a definitive categorical framework, be it labelled ‘Outsider’, ‘self-taught’, or other, may no longer be accurate or serve as beneficial to artists.

The timely release of Nonconformers, a half-century on from the publishing of Outsider Art, encounters important questions within Britain’s art world. Reflecting on the Hayward Gallery exhibition from 1979, what is the current climate, in terms of its representation of artists often considered non-traditional, self-taught, or operating beyond the cultural mainstream? And while a global, historical reckoning to include more diverse perspectives and inclusion practices is in progress, how do UK-based artists working today, who at times are vulnerable to the stigmatisation of ‘outsiders’, operate within the contemporary art world?

Brutal Beauty & Popular Painting

Last year in London, Brutal Beauty (2021), the Barbican’s major retrospective on French artist Jean Dubuffet, included an in-depth presentation over two rooms of artists he collected under his construct of l’Art Brut. The display of sculptures, drawings, and paintings by Fleury-Joseph Crepin (1875-1948, France), Auguste Forestier (1887-1958, France), and Augustin Lesage (1876-1954, France), among others, is not a usual occurrence in British museums. John Maizels, who founded the journal Raw Vision in 1989, raises in his essay for Nonconformers that the Tate collection does not even include “a tiny Madge Gill postcard in their storage, let alone on public view”. Gill (1882-1961, London) was a mediumistic artist whose drawings were exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery’s annual East End Academy Exhibition between 1937-1947 and her archive is currently held by Newham Council. The Tate does have several fantastical drawings by Scottie Wilson (1891, Glasgow-1972, London) in their collection and has featured select self-taught artists via exhibitions including Popular Painting’ from Kinshasha (2007) with Cheri Samba (b. 1956, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and others from the School of Popular Painting.

Beyond Britain

However, institutionally there is still a palpable absence of diverse voices past and present when considering Britain’s international counterpoints. In the United States, the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection includes works by historic self-taught artists William Edmondson (1874-1951, Tennessee), Bill Traylor (1853-1949, Alabama), and Minnie Evans (1892-1987, North Carolina), as well as more contemporary artists Judith Scott (1943, Ohio – 2005, California) and Melvin Way (b. 1954, South Carolina). Furthermore, in France in 2021, the Musée National d’Art Moderne of the Centre Pompidou received a donation from collector Bruno Decharme encompassing 921 works by artists including Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964, Switzerland) and Adolf Wolfli (1864-1930, Switzerland). This donation, with a selection on permanent display as part of the Pompidou’s Museum: Modern and Contemporary Collection, filled an exceptional void – of what the French still often refer to as l’Art Brut – for institutions’ inclusion of self-taught artists and wider artists previously unrepresented.

Where to look in British galleries today?

We are observing diversity and attention growing in Britain’s commercial galleries for self-taught artists and artists operating outside the mainstream. The Gallery of Everything, whose remit is a “commercial space dedicated to non-academic and private artmaking”, has a permanent space in central London. The Gallery has also become a staple at Frieze Masters, wherein their 2021 solo presentation of artist Janet Sobel, (1894, Ukraine-1968, New Jersey), whose all-over drip paintings likely influenced Jackson Pollock, gave a powerful example of how self-taught artists can transcend the boundaries of ‘Outsider’. Similarly, in May 2022, contemporary art gallery Edel Assanti will showcase a solo exhibition by artist, educator, and musician Lonnie Holley (b. 1950, Alabama). As featured in Nonconformers, Holley has actively addressed and transcended labels like ‘Outsider’ and ‘self-taught’. The Jennifer Lauren Gallery, dedicated to “championing self-taught, evolving and overlooked artists from around the world”, has gained critical traction since launching in 2017, including the wide acclaim for its recent collaboration, To All the Kings Who Have No Crowns with Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate. The exhibition, which closed recently on the 3rd of April, presented seventeen artists that are self-taught and/or identify as disabled including Japanese ceramicist Shinichi Sawada (b. 1982, Japan), and artist Nnena Kalu (b. 1966, Glasgow), who are both featured in “Compositions”, the final part of Nonconformers.

Kalu, an artist with autism and limited verbal communication, lives in London and works with ActionSpace, a studio supporting the development of her practice. Her practice involves intricate wrapped sculptural installations and her drawn series known as Vortex drawings. Recent 2021 accolades alone include a Mark Tanner Sculpture Grant, a Paul Hamlyn Foundation award, and the Loewe Foundation/Studio Voltaire Award. She is emblematic of the potential for individual artists who may have previously been pigeon-holed as an ‘Outsider Artist’ to carve out a career in contemporary art ecology.

Also in 2021, Studio Voltaire, a leading contemporary art non-profit in South West London committed to supporting underrepresented artists and emerging practices, presented a significant survey of the work of American artist William Scott (b. 1964, California). An interview with Scott by Sophia Cosmadopolous is featured in Nonconformers. Similarly, Camden Art Centre in North London has also proven interested in presenting contemporary artists to embrace diversity and inclusion. In 2018, Andrew Omoding (b. 1987, Uganda), featured in Nonconformers and also working with ActionSpace, was the first neurodivergent artist to be awarded an Artist-in-Residence with the Centre. Last month, Art et al., an inclusive, curated international platform focusing on neurodiverse commissions and collaborations I co-founded, exhibited Kalu and Omoding alongside their contemporary peers including Cherelle Sappleton, John Powell-Jones, and Holly Stevenson at Cromwell Place, London.

Progress, dialogues, and diversity are present in 2022’s British art world, but we still have a long road ahead to let the creative voices, both past and present, of self-taught artists and/or those operating via a less traditional path of the art establishment to be represented. Nonconformers is my contribution to this dialogue with a repositioned context, making space for more creative voices to be heard. Let’s keep the conversation going.


Find out more about the global history of ‘Outsider Art’ in Lisa’s book Nonconformers, available to buy online here.

Below is a list of some of the organisations and galleries mentioned in this blog that are advocating for diversity and inclusion in the contemporary British art world right now.

Arts Organisations & Periodicals

Galleries & Exhibition Spaces

Find more art history articles by Yale authors on The Art Blog.

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