Jahan Maka – symbolist or outsider artist?

So what do we make of Maka’s art? Is he “just an outsider”, or should he be judged by more traditional standards?

Art critic, Michael D. Hall, holds Maka in high regard as one of the great symbolists. In fact, he compares Maka to Chagall, with figures floating in a decorative visual field. Both artists derive their symbols from the same fertile fields of Eastern Europe, they resisted western norms, and neither wanted to be “typed.” Hall describes Maka as creating a visual poetry, both imaginative in form and layered in meaning. Because his images are compelling, he argues, they demand a critical assessment and certainly far more than the “romantic/mythic folk art rhetoric” that we apply to Maka and, in fact, all outsider artists. Maka discovered the power of symbols and colour. He came from a culture rooted in storytelling and recounting of myths and, says Hall, he fits nicely into the box with other symbolist artists.

Hall raises an interesting issue.  In our arrogance, we created the myth of the primitive artist and it is our habit to place artists like Maka in that category. He goes into the box of self-taught artists, who are a breed unto themselves, and we label (and perhaps dismiss) him as an outsider. But he deserves more.

For me, there is another question. As I struggle to define the boundaries out outsider art, I have often wondered if the art has to be “good”. Do we allow “junk” to in the outsider art category, just because a self-taught artist created it? I don’t think so. When people wonder why I am interested in art that is just “weird junk”, I answer that when I am wading through the flotsam and jetsam of the outsider art world, I often bump into art that draws me in.  Like Darger, like Bartlett, like Maka. Their understanding of composition is worthy of comparison to any “real” artist who has gained the respect of the art community. Is it intuitive or learned? I don’t know. But everything is where it should be within the confines of a frame. The movement is bang-on, the colours just right, and the voice of the artist is crystal clear. If you don’t hear it right away, you are compelled to stand there until you do.

I saw a documentary once about the Prinzhorn collection in Germany (art from psychiatric patients in the 1920s and 30s). The curator was thankfully candid in his description of the collection. He fully acknowledged that most of the artwork was not much to look at, but once in awhile, you find a “real” artist, who clobbers you over the head with his talent. I wholeheartedly agree. I guess I’m not with those who prize outsider art, whatever is produced. But I am inextricably drawn to those whose fingers spring magic. Like Maka – one of our own.