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Masao Obata: Drawing Happiness in Red

Jennifer Lauren Gallery is delighted to present its first show and the first solo show for the late Masao Obata. After featuring in the successful Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection in 2013, Obata’s work has rarely been seen in Japan or overseas. This exhibition brings together a collection of 15 works, which can be seen alongside a film from 21-25 June 2017 in London. 

Masao Obata (b.1943) only started drawing whilst in his residential care facility in Japan after the age of 60. Raised by his grandmother, Obata moved around many institutions before settling at Hyogo Prefecture for a longer period of time. His strong urge to create led him to source large cardboard pieces to draw on from the kitchens in his facility, as paper was not strong enough for him and he was concerned it would rip easily. In the facility Obata could be found night after night continuously drawing often on both sides of the cardboard, completing one piece of work each night. He produced thousands of drawings before his passing in 2010, but many were disposed of by the facility that, in the beginning, had not recognised the artistic value of his work.

Obata was so prolific that the work consumed his room, beneath his bed and towards the end even heaped on his bed, leading to him sleeping in a small corner of the room. He drew whilst sitting on the bed and not at a table, with the cardboard leaning on his lap. Often found carrying around several pieces of cardboard, the corners got so damaged that he cut them off giving them their unique rounded edge look. Obata said, “I am happiest when I am working and by working I mean drawing.” Claiming he was shy, Obata rarely left the institution, not even venturing into the grounds.

Often creating in red pencil, Obata stated that for him this was the colour of happiness and fulfillment. The major themes in Obata’s work include family and marriage, both of which eluded Obata during his lifetime. He did on occasions say that the works featuring a man, a woman and a child were himself and his parents, and that he missed them profusely. Women were often depicted wearing earrings and necklaces, whilst men were known to be featured wearing ties. His drawings also featured a characteristic attention to detail when depicting genitalia in his representations of humans. Other themes included things he observed: vehicles, landscapes and plants.

Masao Obata’s work has been seen in several international exhibitions including in Switzerland, Paris and the Netherlands.

Jennifer Gilbert said: “After seeing Obata’s work behind the scenes before being featured in the Japon exhibition at the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne in 2008, I have been interested in this artists work. Seeing him working in a film during the Wellcome Collection exhibition in 2013 further cemented my enjoyment of his work, especially his fascination with drawing and dressing head-to-toe in red, and the fact he often fell asleep whilst drawing.”

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