by Michelle Morales
Artist Spotlight is a series where we celebrate artists of color, their work, and their life. The art world is often correlated to whiteness as we see art history textbooks and museums that are filled with paintings of the Renaissance, Ancient Greek and well… everything else that’s white! However, people of color have made important contributions to art movements since the beginning of time. Today, we will indulge into the complicated and colorful life of Japanese contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama.
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese contemporary artist that has completely changed the meaning of modern art in the 21st century for over six decades. She explores several different mediums of art from sculptures to paintings and is also known for her distinct signature: polka dots. In each of her exhibitions, her unique visions have broken boundaries and internationally creates a new perspective within the realm of the art world.
Kusama was born into a wealthy but dysfunctional family in Nagano, Japan during the 1920s. She recollects in her autobiography that her upbringing was very traumatic and miserable as her “mother would vent all her rage on[to her]”. She remembers her mother sending her to spy on her father and his mistress as well as destroying Kusama’s artwork and canvases. Her unhappy childhood resulted in a series of disturbing hallucinations such as flowers crowding around her and speaking to her, designs on the tablecloth chasing after her, and sudden bursts of explosions in the sky. She would also see her house covered in gigantic dots. However, she used art as a way to cope with her trauma and make sense out of it.
When Kusama was 13, life in Japan became more difficult and oppressive as the country entered the Second World War. She was forced to work in a factory while also pressured to settle down and eventually get married. Kusama began to feel restless and suffocated, which led her to make the grand decision to leave Japan to the U.S. She says that “America is really the country that raised me”, as she wanted to escape the ‘old customs and morals’ and seek freedom in New York City.
She used her trauma and hallucinations, especially her episodes of being surrounded by large dots, in her work which eventually made her popular and well-known in the art world. Her well known early work in New York City is called “infinity net” paintings. They consisted of thousands of tiny dots obsessively repeated and created an illusion that would go on for infinity. Her works helped gain audience members look beyond art as something visual and view it from a psychological state, forcing her viewers to enter a hypnotic sensation. She led a new artistic movement as she bridged minimalism and abstract expressionism, both being different ends of the spectrum, and combined them beautifully together. Kusama explained that her creative process involved “gradually feel myself under the spell of the accumulation and repetition in my ‘nets’ which expand beyond myself, and all over the limited space of canvas covering the floor, desk and everywhere.”
In New York, she made bold choices in her artwork as she gathered together naked performers, painted with dots and called it “Body Festivals” which became one of her most famous public works.
Her sculptures transformed into mesmerizing environments as she would take up an entire space with her signature style of repetitive polka dots. In 1965, she curated the first of her famous series, “Infinity Mirror Room” where she used her craze in repetition and psychology, by filling up a small mirrored room with a thick carpet, cushion-shaped penises and thousands of polka dots.
Yayoi Kusama’s works celebrates nudity, fantasy, sexual exploration, fluid sexuality, gender identity and beyond. Her art was always futuristic and beyond its time. She is now 90 years old and has been critically acclaimed as her work has been in exhibitions across the world. In 2017, a museum was opened dedicated to her artwork and life in Tokyo, Japan.