By Monica Jimenez
Being an artist is the most forbidden career since we, as Asians, are expected to pursue other, safer choices. Growing up, while many kids had dreams of becoming firefighters or teachers, or singers and actresses – I dreamt of becoming a doctor, since that was the career that would have made my family happiest. From kindergarten all through high school, I believed my life was already set for me – I would go to a well known college to study medicine, get my degree, meet a nice man, get married, have kids, and repeat the cycle all over again to my own kids. But that life wasn’t for me and my mental health deteriorated year after year, believing that I was never meant for success in life. Let alone the arts. It took me almost 3 more years after graduating from high school for me to realize that I needed to pursue art as a career, but I’m glad I made the jump.
Yayoi Kusama may be a name most people in the visual arts recognize, but overall, maybe not many Asian people are familiar with. She, like myself, grew up under the rule of a strict, abusive mother and an absent father. This only furthered her own mental illness. While she dreamed of becoming a painter, her mother repeatedly told her that her future was already set for her to marry a rich man and become a respectable housewife. But Kusama, like myself, didn’t want that life. Even after studying traditional Japanese painting, she still felt like she was holding back creatively – so in 1957, at only 27 years old, she took off for New York with a briefcase full of her drawings. Despite 1960s America being seen as experimental, radical, and ready for change, America had still kept one tradition from the past – the majority of famous artists in this era were white men. The arts were male dominated, and it stayed that way for centuries. But, as soon as Kusama came out with her paintings of infinite dots she referred to as “infinity nets”, she managed to gain the respect of artists around the world, even as a woman. If you look back at her life, you can see that Yayoi Kusama has spent 90 years creating art, making a living out of creating art, being herself, and not being afraid to express her point of view.
Yayoi Kusama was the first well known Asian artist that I’d heard of while studying fine art as a teenager. I was used to my classes teaching us about mainly Western artists from Europe, such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Renoir. (p.s, these artists are still amazing, but I simply didn’t feel a personal connection to them). While our earth is billions of years old, it took until recently for esteemed Art establishments to fully embrace and support female artists and to give them recognition equal to men. The number of female artists shrinks further when you think specifically of successful Asian female artists, but Yayoi Kusama managed to keep that title for 90 years of her life so far.
Like Kusama herself, my life is filled with trauma from sexual abuse. Like Kusama, I struggle with mental illness, and I’ve struggled with the role I was traditionally taught to fulfill before I was even born. But just like Kusama, I learned how to use all that has gone bad in my life and turn it into art. Kusama shows us that you can be a successful female Asian artist even
while choosing to live in a mental institution. After all, she was the first! So, for a young Asian American girl who thought she would never be understood by the predominantly Western art world around her, Yayoi Kusama still makes a huge impact on my art and how I live my life. To this day, Kusama is still alive, creating her infinity nets and infinity rooms almost every single day. While in Asian cultures we are taught true happiness comes from being financially successful in the eyes of others, Kusama taught me what true happiness is – it’s being able to do what you love for the rest of your life without caring about what others think of you.