You’ve probably spotted Yayoi Kusama’s work on Instagram: polka dots, sunshine-yellow pumpkins, or glittering selfies in a sea of mirrors.
Search for #yayoikusama and you’ll find almost a million posts on the app. It’s not hard to see why; these are visually dazzling installations, full of enough colour and life to speak to everyone.
But there’s a lot more to Yayoi Kusama than filters and hashtags. “She’s a trailblazer of a singular kind,” explains Katy Wan, co-curator of the upcoming Infinity Mirror Rooms exhibition at Tate Modern. “And she’s always marched to the beat of her own drum. Her work is really like nothing else.”
Kusama has led a remarkable life, and Wan hopes that the artist’s resilience and innovation will shine through this new exhibition. “I think the overall feeling people will have when they leave the exhibition is one of hope – someone who has managed to overcome so much. We hope that people leave feeling really inspired.”
Here’s our guide to everything you need to know about Kusama before you experience her work for yourself. Now all you need are those gold dust selfies.
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Kusama has spoken openly about the struggles she faced in childhood. Born into a wealthy Japanese family in 1929, her conservative mother was infuriated by Kusama’s desire to become an artist, often confiscating her materials. “I sketched and painted constantly, and that made her so furious that she once kicked my palette across the room,” she later wrote in her autobiography.
Kusama’s father was frequently involved in extramarital affairs, and her mother would send the young girl to spy on him. “It really is quite bold how open Kusama has been in discussing this, but certainly from our present-day perspective we can see how damaging that might be to someone at such a young age,” says Wan.
Ironically though, this only pushed Kusama further towards her art. “In the midst of such a toxic family mix, the only thing I lived for was my artwork,” she has since explained.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life 2011/2017
From a young age, Kusama also grappled with unsettling hallucinations that disturbed her sense of reality, often involving repetitive patterns or anthropomorphised plants and animals. The first, she recalls, took place as she sat in a bed of violets.
“One day I suddenly looked up to find that each and every violet had its own individual, human-like facial expression, and to my astonishment they were all talking to me. I was so terrified that my legs began shaking.”
The young Kusama began drawing the things she saw, “to ease the shock and fear of the episodes.” This, she says, “is the origin of my pictures.” The need to reflect on or make sense of her world still drives much of Kusama’s work to this day.