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China discovers its self-taught artists

China’s self-taught artists are gradually emerging from the margins. A new ten-day art festival to promote Chinese alternative art took place in Beijing from late June until 5 July in Dashilar, a downtown Hutong lane neighborhood turned design district. Called Almost Art Project (AAP), around 3,000 visitors attended the event, which featured more than 300 works by more than 40 outsider and comic-book artists.

Meanwhile, the Nanjing Outsider Art Centre, a non-profit dedicated to the creation, study and exhibition of work by self-taught artists, plans to launch this summer a website called Outsider Art China, to provide an online platform for their work.

Almost Art Project’s founder Sammi Liu Yiyuan, says that of the works on sale, around 40% of the total on show, more than half found buyers. Most of the collectors were professional artists. “The outsider art part is the most popular section; however, comics sell better,” Liu says.

While China does not lack for events featuring art by students or affordable works, AAP is among the first to bridge the professional mainstream with comic and self-taught art. Liu says that outsider art in China “is definitely getting more attention from the mainstream art world,” for example, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art recently organised and panel discussion on the subject.

AAP’s Chinese name of Suren Yishu, also the title of an accompanying publication, references meanings ranging from minimalism to vegetarianism. It “doesn’t mean approaching art, it means a status of pursuing art”, Liu says. “Our concept of outsider artists is untrained, self-taught artists who have the urge to create art.”
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AAP was partly inspired by Liu’s visit to the Museum of Everything in London in 2009. She met its founder James Brett last year. She also contacted the Nanjing Outsider Art Center, founded by artist and psychiatric art advocate Guo Haiping, which introduced 14 of the participating artists. Others were referred from an open call over social media service WeChat.

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Liu recently established Tabula Rasa Gallery in 798, Beijing. Educated in Canada and the UK, she is a former journalist and deputy editor of The Art Newspaper China, who previously worked for art fairs SH Contemporary and the affordable Surge Art Beijing.