Yayoi Kusama, San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

Yayoi Kusama Exhibition At The San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art Draws Criticism Over Her Racist Characterization Of Black People

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art raised eyebrows when it decided to host an exhibition of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, due to her history of making anti-Black statements in her art. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Kusama issued a statement to the museum, which it released on Oct 13. 

“I deeply regret using hurtful and offensive language in my book,” Kusama said. “My message has always been one of love, hope, compassion, and respect for all people. My lifelong intention has been to lift up humanity through my art. I apologize for the pain I have caused.”

Kusama’s work has long been critiqued as lacking respect for Black people. In her 2003 autobiography Infinity Net, she wrote, regarding a photo of a Black child, “I envisioned America as a land full of these strange, barefooted children and virgin primeval forests.”

In the Japanese version of the book, she described Greenwich Village, a historically Black neighborhood dating back to the 1850s, as a slum because of “black people shooting each other out front, and homeless people sleeping there.” 

In June, writer Dexter Thomas criticized Yayoi Kusama: 1945 To Now, a compilation of Kusama’s work that was published earlier this year, in a piece for Hyperallergic.

Thomas wrote, “In her essay from 1945 to Now, curator Isabella Tam devotes pages to placing Kusama’s work in the context of ancient Chinese and Japanese traditions and forms. This is fine as an artistic or intellectual exercise, but it might be more straightforward to recognize that Kusama’s use of Black people as props also places her literature as an inheritor of a more disappointing tradition: American racism.”

The Chronicle, likewise, was critical of the decision by the SFMOMA to host Kusama’s exhibition, given her long and consistent history of questionable statements about Black people through her art. Soleil Ho, a staff writer for the paper, asked through her column if the art world in general cared about the anti-Black sentiment Kusama expressed throughout her career. 

SFMOMA Director Christopher Bedford told the paper that the museum intended to use the controversy positively to create a dialogue about how museums can best approach artists with histories like Kusama. Bedford said that the museum’s hiring of Gamynne Guillotte as the museum’s Chief Education and Community Engagement Officer in June put them in a position where the museum can create public discussion about complexity in art.

“We will roll out a pretty ambitious public program in the spring. We’re in the process of identifying speakers and issuing invitations. Preceding that, there will be an internally focused dialogue in November where we will first have staff, along with moderators, discuss the difficulty of what it means to work multiple dimensions of expression. I would want to discuss racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, any kind of prejudice that has existed and has been expressed throughout history in art, in literature, in other forms of expression.”


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