Prior to her SFMOMA exhibition, artist Yayoi Kusama expressed “deep regret” over the anti-Black statements she made in the past.
Yayoi Kusama, an acclaimed Japanese artist, came under fire after it was revealed that she had used derogatory and stereotypical language against Black people in many of her written works. Journalist Dexter Thomas, who was fluent in Japanese, highlighted the problematic language Kusama used for Black people in an article she wrote for Verge in 2017 as well as another one for Hyperallergic in 2023. Thomas also shared how Kusama went to great lengths to describe the smell and genitalia of Black people in her 1984 short story The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street. Similar incidents were found in the 1971 play ‘Tokyo Lee’.
But perhaps the most damning evidence came from her book Infinity Net, published in 2003. In the original Japanese version, Kusama described the “distinctive small” and “animalistic sex techniques” of Black people, as well as describing the genitals of a Black man she used for her performance art. She also blamed Black people for the falling real estate prices in an area where she used to live in New York.
When Yayoi Kusama was first announced to be part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) exhibition this year, it was met with criticism – including an open letter by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Soleil Ho. However, the museum director Christopher Bedford decided to stand up for the artist, saying: “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’s response came alongside a statement by Kusama herself, where she expressed disappointment over her past remarks. She said: “I deeply regret using hurtful and offensive language in my book. 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.”