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China Artists with Autism

They are a group of artists with autism, and their art could almost be classified as art brut, a French term meaning “raw or rough art.”

Art brut was a label coined by artist Jean Dubuffet in 1945 after visiting mental hospitals in Switzerland, where he was deeply moved by the patients’ paintings and sculptures. He considered their work, created outside the boundaries of mainstream culture, representative of a more magical side of art.

China acknowledged a form of art brut in 2008 when the United Nations established April 2 as “World Autism Awareness Day,” highlighting the need to improve the lives of those with the condition.

The country recently held its first autistic children’s art exhibition in a remote gallery in Beijing’s 798 art district. The event lasted only a day. Viewers expressed delight with the imaginative artwork, and more impressed that the artists were children with autism.

Autism is a developmental disorder that makes communication and social interaction difficult. It affects about 8 to 15 people in 10,000, and there is an upward trend, according to international statistics. There are more than one million autistic children in China today. While boys are three to four times more likely to develop the condition than girls, no one yet knows what causes it.

Children with autism develop differently, and show their value in distinctive ways. For instance, works by autistic artists are full of raw, creative energy; they’re innocent and direct, which comes from a pure heart. The style seems to suggest that we can return to our own innocence. Although their purity and creativity surprises us, it also reminds us of our shame: For too long mainstream society has trapped, ignored and misunderstood the talents of those with autism.

As Picasso once wisely observed: “It took me four years to paint like Rafael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

by Zhang Li-jie

China Artists with Autism


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