mental health women in the arts

Yayoi Kusama

This weeks Illustrated Woman in History was illustrated by Yuki Sambongi. It is featured in the second issue of the Illustrated Women in History zine which you can order here.

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist and writer who is recognised as one of the most important living artists from Japan, and an important part of the avant-garde movement.

Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano. By the age of 10, she was creating paintings that featured dots which were inspired by hallucinations that would go on to inspire her future work and become a distinct feature in her signature style.

Kusama’s parents were unsupportive of her wish to pursue art, with her mother fruitlessly attempting to convince her to abandon her dreams for the conventional path of a traditional Japanese housewife. She was also steered away from her art when forced to work up to 12 hour days in a parachute factory during the Pacific War. Despite this, she began exhibiting her work in her teens and in 1948 she was able to attend art school in Kyoto with the intention of studying painting in the Japanese modernist Nihonga style.

Kusama felt stifled by the Nihonga style, and became drawn to European and American avant-garde. She exhibited in Masumoto and Tokyo in the 1950s, and began to make a name for herself.

In 1957, Kusama moved to the US and began making ‘infinity net’ paintings featuring polka dots while living in New York City. Her work preceded the emerging Minimalist movement and quickly became more closely associated with Pop art and performance art. Kusama became a central figure in the New York avant-garde. Her work was exhibited alongside artists like Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. The latter of which she claims plagiarised her work. She then moved into sculpture, and in the 1960’s began organising ‘happenings’ like body painting festivals, fashion shows and anti-war demonstrations. Kusama painted brightly coloured polka dots on naked participants both at these happenings, and as part of a performance art piece entitled the Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MOMA (1969), which took place at the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan where she turned her attention to writing visceral and surreal novels, short stories and poetry. 4 years later, she checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill and took up permanent residence there.In 1993, Kusama produced her famous installation entitled Mirror Room (Pumpkin), to represent Japan at the 45th Venice Biennale. The work featured a mirrored room filled with orange pumpkin sculptures covered in her signature black polka dots. Kusama herself sat inside the room dressed as a colour-coordinated magician.

Kusama continues to build on her fame and experiment with her artistic practise. She has often said that “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

You can follow Yuki Sambongi on Instagram @xxyyukki or on Tumblr @yukisambongi

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