In a surprising development, renowned Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama has issued a public apology for offensive remarks she made over two decades ago. The controversy has overshadowed her highly-anticipated art show, ‘Infinite Love,’ hosted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). This article explores Kusama’s apology, its impact on her exhibition, and the broader conversation it has sparked about art, history, and accountability.
“I apologize for the pain I have caused.” – In the lead-up to her upcoming art show ‘Infinite Love,’ acclaimed Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama apologized for a series of anti-Black comments she made over 20 years ago.
An Official Statement
The apology came in the form of a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, provided by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which is hosting Kusama’s upcoming show.
“I deeply regret using hurtful and offensive language in my book,” the 94-year-old’s statement began.
Love, Hope, Compassion, Respect
“My message has always been one of love, hope, compassion, and respect for all people,” it continued.
“My lifelong intention has been to lift up humanity through my art. I apologize for the pain I have caused.”
The questionable comments in question came from passages in her own autobiography, Infinity Net, published in 2003.
She described a little Black girl’s “exotic face” in one passage and wrote about the U.S. in another, imagining it as “a land full of these strange, barefooted children and virgin primeval forests.”
Taking It Further
She went even further, describing Black people in general as “primitive, hyper-sexualized beings.”
In the original Japanese first edition of Infinity Net, Kusama described her life in New York and called her neighborhood a “slum,” which she blamed on “Black people shooting each other out front, and homeless people sleeping there.”
The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street
But her racial commentaries weren’t exclusive to her autobiography. In her 1984 novel The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street, she added offensive and fetishized descriptions of Black people’s smells and genitalia.
In another literary work, her 1971 play Tokyo Lee, Kusama added a single Black character, who she crudely stereotyped as a “WILD-looking, hairy, coal-black savage.”
Though these instances flew under the radar for decades, they recently resurfaced in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed article titled “SFMOMA is set to have a blockbuster show. But what about the artist’s racist writings?”
Elephant in the Polka-Dotted Room
Columnist Soleil Ho’s article brought attention to her controversial writing and noted that SFMOMA had not yet confronted the “elephant in this polka-dotted room,” a reference to the signature polka dots that adorn much of Kusama’s most famous works.
She Has a Problem
“Despite the global cultural branding that depicts Yayoi Kusama as a beacon of love and a barrier-breaking woman of color, the artist has a racism problem,” Ho wrote.
SFMOMA Takes a Stand
SFMOMA director Chris Bedford responded to the article, sending an email to the Chronicle that stated, “SFMOMA stands firmly against these and all anti-Black sentiments.
Our effort is not to edit figures out of art history based on misdeeds but rather to present a fully dimensional, complex social art history.”
A Broader Interrogation
More recently, Chris Bedford expounded on his response in a phone interview, explaining that “We can use this moment as a catalyst for a broader interrogation of what it means to present artists in our galleries.”
Inspiration for a New Program
In fact, a series of programs are slated to appear at SFMOMA in 2024 as a response to the criticisms against Kusama. The programs will explore how museums and their visitors can navigate problematic artists in their work.
Tackling the Issue
“We need to tackle this, not only in relationship to Kusama but actually in relationship to art history more broadly,” Bedford elaborated.
“The statement that Kusama herself made has opened the door for us to become leaders in the field and thinking about the relationship between authorial complexity and artistic expression.”
A Dark Shadow on Her Show
The timing of Kusama’s apology is convenient, as the resurfacing of these past comments has cast a shadow on her highly anticipated San Francisco show.
‘Infinite Love’ debuted on Oct 14 and is sold out through November, but that hasn’t stopped the recent negative media attention.
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