Can I please be an "outsider artist"?

Updated: Jun 2, 2019

I consider myself an outsider artist. Most people seem to baulk at that because my work is so classical in nature. I pay attention to formal concepts like composition and form. I write mostly coherent artist statements about my work. And I look and sound like any middle class woman my age. Perhaps a bit more verbose...

The Argument

Outsider art is usually defined primarily as "unschooled" "having no formal artistic training" or, more usually, as mildly insane, to one degree or another. So let's dig into that. Am I uneducated? Am I insane?

  • I have never formally studied art outside of high school. I didn't even matriculate with art. In fact I barely scraped through matric at all, doing 3 subjects followed by a 5 year break, and then another three. None of them even vaguely art related, except the two mandatory languages.

  • As for insanity, I'm nothing terribly unusual, especially in the arts world: I get depressed and anxious sometimes. I crave human connection but I can be a bit of a hermit until the urge hits to throw a proper party or go hiking with friends. For the most part though, my mind is not much different from most professional creatives.

  • I show my work in galleries, but only in a few and, thanks to some painful recent experiences, I refuse to sign any contract that restricts my practice or my connection with people, my sales or my creative output. I own my work and myself.

So how do we consolidate these ideas? A fairly normal human with a comparatively sane outlook on life vs an "outsider artist", prolific, unschooled, unemployable. I am essentially frustrated by such a false dichotomy: All of these things are true.

As the entire world begins to rebel against student debt, unemployed graduates and PhDs that break the spirits and minds of our most brilliant people, the art industry is clamping down. Declaring accreditations and ever more convoluted institutional approvals. This artist is approved, that artist is not. This bundle of wool with a coherent artist statement, biography and list of approval from big institutions will prove an investment. That bundle of wool is only a bundle of wool. The person who made it has no connections, no relevance and doesn't understand the formula for declaring it "art". At best it's "craft" and can be safely relegated to a flea market or an idle dinner table conversation.

The Gift of Imposter Syndrome

I decided when I realised I'd never be able to afford a degree that I would master the techniques and conceits of formal art so that nobody would be able to question my skill, or my claim to be a "real artist". I paint people who matter, in contexts that resonate in a style that is recognisably " art. But I'll skip the degree, thanks. And bowing to the gallery system.

I choose the outside. With my classical portraits, with my formality, with my contemporary references and historical context. I choose always the outside. The outside is where all the good ideas are.

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South African Contemporary Art | Portraiture | Sculpture|

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