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  • Geraldine Achieng

Women in the Arts: Yayoi Kusama

Trigger warning: this cheat sheet discusses abuse, violence, mental illness and suicide. If you are likely to be affected by these topics, feel free to give this cheat sheet a miss.

In this series, we're taking a look at women who have made waves in the arts - from painters and performers, to journalists and activists - chosen by ANE writers.

In this installment, Geraldine looks at the life and legacy of Yayoi Kusama.

Who is Yayoi Kusama?

At the age of 92, Yayoi Kusama remains one of the most influential female artists in the contemporary art world. Renowned for her polka-dot ensembles and eccentric personality that bleeds evidently into her work, Yayoi Kusama describes herself as an ‘obsessional artist’ and has firmly placed herself as a pioneer in the male-dominated world of Abstract Expressionism.

The tumultuous beginning

Born in Matsumoto, Japan, Yayoi Kusama was born the youngest daughter of an affluent family and started painting as a child. The artist explains that her artwork is based on her deep understanding of the world. Kusama’s own account credits her trademark polka dots originating from hallucinations involving fields and rooms of dots she experienced as a young child. In her own words: ‘One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe’. The artist recalls: ‘I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space’. It’s this childhood event that informed the theme of dots throughout her career.

I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space

Unfortunately, Yayoi Kusama grew up in a difficult family environment. Her mother was physically and verbally abusive and stifled her interest in art from a young age. Often, her early work was destroyed by her mother in a bid to steer the artist into a more ‘viable’ career and, as a young girl, she was used as a spy to uncover infidelity in her parents' marriage. Art was Kusama’s resolve away from home. She left to formally study contemporary art in Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948, where she was only briefly. There, she found more inspiration in the avant-garde style of Europe and the US which contrasted with the dogmatic and principled environment in which she was studying Japanese art.

Kusama was a great admirer of American modernist artist Georgia O’Keeffe. They exchanged letters in which O’Keeffe encouraged Kusama to move to the US. She did so in 1958, defying her parents’ wishes and kickstarting an incredibly successful career.

A phenomenon discovered

Yayoi Kusama drew and painted with intense concentration and at insanely fast speeds. Her life truly imitated her art as it didn’t take long for the young artist to find success in America. Mentored and supported by O'Keeffe, Kusama was driven by confidence and unshaken by the American, male-dominated world of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, she held her first solo show in New York within her first year of arrival. She gained popularity with her well-known exhibitions of her sculpted fabric phallic couch ‘Accumulation No.1’, the world’s first mirrored room environment which precursed her legendary Infinity Mirror Rooms and the Narcissus Garden: 1500 mirrored plastic orbs that she sold for two dollars each in a display at the Venice Biennale exhibition. She was the first woman ever to represent Japan in the 33rd Venice Biennale in her now iconic installation.

Above images in order: Accumulation No. 1, 'Accumulations' (1962), Mirror Rooms (1965-present), Narcissus Garden (1966) & Pumpkin (2018)

Kasuma was unapologetic about her art and often used her exhibitions and growing popularity as an artistic socialite to perform protest art that challenged the political climate of 60s America. She staged ‘New York’s first homosexual wedding’, creating revealing polka dot wedding dresses for two at her so called ‘Church of Self-Obliteration’.

Kusuma also orchestrated a number of protests at the height of the Vietnam War. She climbed the Brooklyn Bridge to voice her opposition to the war, organising a host of naked dancers to hand out anti-capitalistic statements at the New York Stock Exchange and leading a naked crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge that culminated in Kusama’s infamous ‘Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead’ (so raucous it headlined the New York Daily News!).

Yayoi Kusama was bold and controversial. Her art eventually earned her criticism in the US media for its ‘endless desire for publicity’, with the conservative Japanese mainstream media of the time also disapproving of her work and labelling her ‘Queen of Scandals’.

At the height of her popularity in the 60s, Yayoi Kusuma became a central figure in the New York Avant-garde scene. Her work was admired by renowned artists Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, with her mentor Georgia O’Keeffe even buying some of her artwork. Interestingly, in a male-dominated environment, Kusuma openly claimed that many of her ideas were plagiarised by the artists she worked with. Budding friendships were strained for the artist and, in the face of growing public scrutiny, Kusuma’s mental health began to further deteriorate as her popularity began to wither away.

Battling trauma and confronting her mental health

Yayoi Kusuma battled with her mental health from a young age. Her premature exposure to adult topics and abuse was projected onto her sculptures and exhibitions. During the peak of her financial struggles in America, where Kusuma faced a period of obscurity and frustration with plagiarism of her work, she attempted to take her own life but survived. After the death of her partner and fellow artist Joseph Connell, Kusama returned to Japan where she was shunned from support by her family and friends and reintroduced into a society that berated and scorned her art. Under these tough circumstances, Yayoi Kusama once again attempted to commit suicide.

After suffering a mental breakdown, Kusuma checked herself into Seiwa Psychiatric hospital where she still lives now, by choice. She has found a space that allowed art therapy to stabilise her understanding of the world. After a hiatus in making art, the hospital provided the safe space and the peace she needed for her eventual renaissance in the contemporary art world.

A living legacy

Yayoi Kusama

Kusuma has triumphed continuously after re-emerging at the Venice Biennale in 1993 with ‘The Tale of the Universe’, poetically holding an exhibition there 30 years after her first exhibition there. The artist was met with high acclaim both in her home country and internationally, and has since had over five million guests tour her exhibition worldwide. In fact, guests have an average visiting time of 30 seconds in each of her exhibition rooms because of how in-demand viewings of her work are!

Yayoi Kusuma has been nothing short of prolific, extending her artistic streak to the fashion and beauty world by collaborating with Marc Jacobs, Lancôme and Louis Vuitton for her LOUIS VUITTON x KUSAMA COLLECTION. Kusuma has featured in her own ‘Infinity’ based short film which details her inspiration and experiences. The film was met with critical acclaim.

Above: Kusama X Louis Vuitton

Kusama is currently considered the most successful living female artist, boasting the highest auction prices for any living woman. She has become a staple in the contemporary art world for her originality. She is an advocate of self-love and self-awareness, an example of strength and perseverance for budding female artists and is truly the modern day example of a human hero.

Want to write your own addition to our Women in the Arts series? Send us a pitch here.

Edited by Olena Strzelbicka

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