Helping disabled artists reach consumers

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Taisuke Kinugasa, right, works while his mother Tamami looks on in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto. Kinugasa has received acclaim at home and abroad for his brightly colored landscape and still-life paintings.

OSAKA — Efforts to support artistic endeavors by people with disabilities are gaining steam.

In addition to encouraging their participation in society, more products that demonstrate disabled people’s artistry and sense of design are hitting the market, with last year’s Tokyo Paralympic Games giving these initiatives even more momentum.

‘Cute and cool’

Displays of colorful handkerchiefs, ties and umbrellas at a Heralbony Co. pop-up shop in Kyoto include profiles of the artists who designed them and other information.

Morioka-based Heralbony sells products made with art created by people with disabilities, and the firm opened its first pop-up shop in Kansai in December for a two-month run at the department store Fujii Daimaru in Kyoto. The company has contracts with more than 150 artists nationwide and also sells its products online.

“The splendor of the art is our foundation. This isn’t a charity. We have items people think are cute and cool,” said a company spokesperson.

Taisuke Kinugasa, a 32-year-old Kyoto native with autism, provides Heralbony with designs for handkerchiefs and stoles. He was discovered at a local gallery when he was 18 years old and is now a popular artist who holds solo exhibitions in Japan and abroad.

His mother Tamami, 61, said: “Drawing makes Taisuke happy. It’s rewarding and leads him to new challenges.”

Corporate partnerships

Traditionally, creative endeavors by people with disabilities have been part of rehabilitation services provided by welfare facilities, but in the 2000s social welfare organizations started opening museums in places like Shiga and Hiroshima prefectures dedicated to their art.

These efforts have been propelled by “art brut” (see below) that features works by outsiders to the art world, including people with disabilities. In recent years, designs have been turned into products through partnerships with companies, which has helped connect artists with consumers.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Inside a pop-up Heralbony store in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto

Last year, the nonprofit organization Inclusive Japan, which operates a job assistance office in Ehime Prefecture, used crowdfunding to launch an initiative to produce reusable shopping bags with Tokyo-based Toppan Inc.

The office has about 50 people with developmental disabilities and mental disorders who help create the bags, which were displayed at a members-only cafe.

“I hope this will provide an opportunity for them to open their hearts to society,” a person handling the initiative said.

The Able Art Company in Nara, which is run jointly by three NPOs, matches manufacturers with artists it recruits to work on projects including sake labels and T-shirts. The goal is to get artists paid and help them become more independent.

Government help

Since a law promoting cultural and artistic activities for people with disabilities went into effect in 2018, the central and local governments have been subsidizing and facilitating exhibitions.

In 2020, the Haradanomori Gallery of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art Oji Branch in Kobe created a permanent exhibition space for works by people with disabilities, an unusual endeavor for a public museum. Five exhibitions have been held so far.

“The ease with which works by people with disabilities can now reach society is a recent achievement,” said Konan University Prof. Tadashi Hattori, whose fields of research are art history, art theory and museum studies. “To create an even more tolerant, pluralistic society, we need an environment where art can be created and appreciated regardless of whether a person has a disability. Government support for that is essential.”

Art brut

Also known as outsider art, this refers to works of art by people with no specialized training and who express themselves via their own impulses. The idea was proposed by the French painter Jean Dubuffet and reached Japan in the 1990s. Some Japanese artists who fall under this category have been successful internationally, such as Shinichi Sawada, a ceramic artist who has autism.