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Yayoi Kusama Expresses “Deep Regret” For Anti-Black Statements Ahead of Exhibition at SFMOMA

Yayoi Kusama at the exhibition "I Who Have Arrived In Heaven" at David Zwirner on November 7, 2013.PHOTO BY ANDREW TOTH/GETTY IMAGES Yayoi Kusama recently addressed her racist descriptions of Black people in several written works, including her 2003 autobiography Infinity Net, just before the opening of her latest exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA). “I deeply regret using hurtful and offensive language in my book,” the Japanese artist said in an exclusive statement to the San Francisco Chronicle supplied by the museum on Friday. “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.” Related Articles SFMOMA Raises Admission to $30, Joining the US's Most Expensive MuseumsOrlando Museum of Art Sues Ousted Director, SFMOMA Hikes Ticket Price, and More: Morning Links for August 16, 2023 The museum’s choice to feature Kusama was criticized by Chronicle columnist Soleil Ho earlier this week. In an email statement to Ho, museum Director Christopher Bedford said that “SFMOMA stands firmly against these and all anti-Black sentiments.” Bedford also told the Chronicle in a phone interview, “We can use this moment as a catalyst for a broader interrogation of what it means to present artists in our galleries.” “I think it is a tremendous leadership opportunity for SFMOMA,” Bedford told the Chronicle, citing a series of public programs slated for early next year aimed at addressing the work of artists with “problematic histories.” “In lots of ways, 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,” he said. Bedford said that the programs would be led by SFMOMA’s chief education and community engagement officer, Gamynne Guillotte, and planning for them had been underway since she joined the institution in June. Journalist Dexter Thomas, who is fluent in Japanese and spent a year abroad at Waseda University as a visiting Fulbright scholar, highlighted the derogatory language used by Kusama in articles for Vice in 2017 and Hyperallergic earlier this year. Thomas also interviewed the artist before the opening of her namesake museum in Tokyo. In the original 2003 Japanese edition of Infinity Net, Kusama describes Black people using derogatory language in several instances. These include marveling at their “distinctive smell” and “animalistic sex techniques”; a recollection of the artist using a naked black man in her own performance art, with details about his lips and genitals; as well as her lamenting an area of Greenwich Village in New York where she used to live becoming a “slum” with falling real estate prices due to “black people are shooting each other out front.” That last line was deleted from the English translation of Infinity Net. Thomas noted that Kusama’s 1984 short story The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street also featured “grotesque and voyeuristic depictions” about the smell and genitals of its Black characters, a treatment not applied to the narrative’s white counterparts. In the 1971 play “Tokyo Lee,” the Japanese artist also describes its lone Black character as a “WILD-looking, hairy, coal-black savage.” Aside from her novellas and autobiography, Kusama’s artistic works include paintings, installation, sculpture, performance art, film, and poetry. The 94-year-old contemporary artist is best known internationally for her popular, selfie-inducing, mirror-lined “Infinity Rooms”, as well as her use of polka dots. This year has been particularly busy for the “Kusama Industrial Complex,” as ARTnews contributor Greg Allen called it in 2020. In January, the artist’s second collaboration with Louis Vuitton included a widely-publicized campaign and several stores decorated with references to her work, including polka dots, Narcissus Garden-like chromatic balls, and animatronic robots modeled after her. In March, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery extended its exhibition of Kusama’s work for the second time until July 16. In April, Sotheby’s sold $23 million of her art in a single auction in Hong Kong, and the city’s M+ Museum gave away 10,000 tickets to its blockbuster retrospective. In May, David Zwirner opened a major solo exhibition of her work across its three spaces in New York, immediately drawing long lines. In July, a permanent gallery of Kusama’s work opened at Instituto Inhotim, a sculpture park and museum in Brumadinho, Brazil. Kusama has lived in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo since 1977, due to the facility’s supportive art therapy program. She also wrote about her long-term struggles with mental health in Infinity Net. “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art,” Kusama wrote. “Infinite Love,” Kusama’s first solo exhibition in northern California, is scheduled to open at SFMOMA on October 14. According to the Chronicle, the show is already sold out through November. SF MOMA and Thomas did not respond to requests for comment from ARTnews.

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