On the eve of the opening of her exhibition Infinite Love at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama expressed “deep regret” over past anti-Black comments she made. The racist comments were detailed in a Hyperallergic article in June by journalist and documentary filmmaker Dexter Thomas.
“I deeply regret using hurtful and offensive language in my book,” Kusama said in a statement on Friday, October 13, provided by SFMOMA and published in the San Francisco Chronicle. “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.”
Kusama’s statement references her autobiography Infinity Net, first published in 2002, in which she characterizes Black people as “primitive, hyper-sexualized beings,” according to Thomas’s reporting for Hyperallergic.
In the original Japanese edition of the book, Kusama also called her New York neighborhood a “slum” where real estate prices were “falling by $5 a day” because of “black people shooting each other out front, and homeless people sleeping there.” These lines were removed from an English translation of the autobiography published in 2011.
“It was not a mistranslation,” Thomas observed in his article. “The rest of the paragraph was intact; only the sentence about Black and unhoused people was deleted.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, SFMOMA Director Chris Bedford said his institution “stands firmly against [Kusama’s] and all anti-Black sentiments” and announced that programming addressing the artist’s troubling comments is slated for spring 2024 (the show runs through August 2025). The museum has not yet provided details on what this programming will entail.
“As an institution, SFMOMA is actively grappling with and exploring different methodologies for presenting artists who are at once visionary and flawed; who create inspiring work but also have histories of harmful behavior or painful biases,” Bedford said.
SFMOMA’s statement came after a group of community members wrote emails and letters to the museum demanding that the institution contextualize the new blockbuster show with information about Kusama’s racist views. After months of back and forth with the museum, four of them participated in a Zoom call with Bedford, the recently appointed Chief Education and Community Engagement Officer Gamynne Guillotte, and other museum officials. The community members — retired health worker and activist Catherine Cusic, artist Rodney Ewing, photojournalist Spike Kahn of San Fransisco’s art nonprofit Pacific Felt Factory, and writer and educator Leticia Hernandez — said that they had initially hoped for a swift and adequate response from the museum.
“When Hyperallergic‘s article came out, we had reason to believe that SFMOMA would take responsible action,” Cusic said in an interview. “We hoped that they would work with us and others in the community. To the contrary, for four months, all we got was a lot of rhetoric, from one staff person after another, until the weight of people emailing them became so great that they agreed to meet with us.”
“After refusing to take immediate action, the revelations in the press forced the museum to respond,” Cusic added.
Cusic cited the Bay Area’s long tradition of art activism and social justice organizing as the backdrop to her group’s efforts. “San Franciscans know how to organize,” she said. “We also know each other across ethnic lines.”
Recently, SFMOMA has come under scrutiny for hiking up its admission prices by $10 for the show, which consists of two of the artist’s “mirror rooms” that visitors can experience for up to two minutes each. Starting today, the admission prices are $30 for adults and $23 for individuals between the ages of 19 and 24. The show is sold out until the end of November, according to the museum’s website.
Kusama is one of the world’s highest-selling women artists, with works regularly selling for millions of dollars at auction. The community activists involved in the recent Zoom conversation are now calling on the museum to invest some of the show’s proceeds in programs for local Black artists.
“I would like to see SFMOMA become more responsive to local artists of color,” Ewing told Hyperallergic. “Not only with solo and group exhibitions but also with resources for artists and curators of color.”
“This cannot be a knee-jerk response to the current issue with Kusama, but one that becomes part of the fabric of the institution.”