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Tuesday 22 November 2016

Inspirational Icons: Yayoi Kusama

I first discovered the work of Yayoi Kusama just a few years ago when I was teaching art history to children. I'd last studied art history myself nearly twenty years before, so there was a sizeable gap in my own knowledge which I had been lazy about filling in. I was fortunate to have some incredibly switched on pupils who refused to let me rest on my laurels, and after a couple of terms fielding questions like "Why don't we learn about more women artists?" and "Why are all the artists we talk about dead?" I realised it was time to hit the books and gen up on my contemporary art.

One of the characters I ran across in my quest to find living, working female artists was, of course, Yayoi Kusama. And I will be eternally grateful to the children who pushed me into doing the research that led me here. I soon fell in love with Kusama's work, and her story, and the children I taught loved her too. For an artist as prolific and fascinating as Kusama is, she deserves to be much more well known.

Kusama's artwork will strike most as bright and cheerful, "wacky" in an immediately accessible and appealing way. But it belies a much darker truth - Kusama has suffered severe mental illness since childhood. Her artwork is not just her way of dealing with her condition but also a visual representation of the hallucinations she has experienced throughout her life. In fact, after garnering major success as part of the Pop Art movement (at the time, only Andy Warhol was a more famous proponent), Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital. She has continued living there since the mid-1970s, leaving daily to work in her studio and occasionally attend exhibitions. Now approaching her 88th year, Kusama is still exhibiting internationally.

Art heals. And Yayoi Kusama is living proof that no matter how broken you may be, you still have something beautiful to bring to the world. 

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