Transnational Feminisms and Intersectional Perspectives: Yayoi Kusama within a Feminist Praxis

Written by Honey Garrett

Figure 1: Kusama Yayoi (1965) Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli's Field. Stuffed cotton, board, and mirrors, Castellane Gallery, New York City.

Figure 2: Kusama Yayoi (1966) Walking Piece [performance piece, kimono, and umbrella], Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.

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This discussion paper will explore and analyse the multifaceted practice of Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, situating her works within a feminist praxis. I will attempt to displace the centralised, white, middle-class voice from feminist discourse and prioritise intersectional and transnational modes and theories, whilst also acknowledging my own positionality and limited perspective. By investigating the importance of culturally specific forms of feminism, I aim to explore how Kusama’s own works are imbued with feminist thematics, regardless of how she identifies with the ideology. Through visual analysis of the works Infinity Mirror Room - Phalli's Field (1965) and Walking Piece (1966), I will unpack Kusama’s experiences of childhood, second-wave feminism, Japanese culture and activism, highlighting the significance of her practice within the global art sector.

Positionality and Unpacking Feminism.

I begin this discussion paper by first acknowledging my limited perspective pertaining to my positionality as a young, white Australian female residing on the stolen land of the Boon wurrung and Wurundjeri people of the eastern Kulin nation. Whilst I identify as a feminist, I want to recognise and highlight my own privilege, as a white, middle-class woman, and that this privilege is intrinsically tied to colonisation and the subsequent continuing centralisation of whiteness among feminist discourse here in Australia and globally. This is important because, as academic, feminist, author and Indigenous activist, Aileen Moreton-Robinson explores in her book, Talkin' Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (2000), second-wave feminism ignored and 'Othered' the voices of Indigenous [and non-white] women. Moreton-Robinson explains that white women continue to be ‘socially situated subjects who are located in power relations where whiteness remains invisible, natural, normal and unmarked’ (2000:125).

In reviewing Moreton-Robinson's text, Australian law professor, Rosemary Hunter proposes that ‘we must displace the subject position middle-class white woman from its unmarked and unnamed status and make it visible in white feminist academic discourse' (Hunter 2001:1). Informed by these ideas, I will attempt to interrogate some of the inordinate pitfalls of mainstream, Westernised feminism and its presumptions of an ‘Anglo First World, able-bodied, heterosexual and most often middle-class subject of feminist theory and activism, that claims that the interests of this subject are those of all women’ (Hunter 2001:1). I specifically explore these notions in the context of the contemporary Australian and Asian art world.

Moreover, in writing this paper, I also acknowledge the ‘hierarchical organisation of voice’ (Nicoll 2000:374) more often than not situates the third person narration within a ‘constitutively white’, colonial regime of ‘representation that relegates Indigenous [and all non-white] standpoints to ‘perspectives” (Nicoll 2000:376). Professor Fiona Nicoll, a theorist of feminism and critical race and whiteness studies, postulates that the construct of the Eurocentric, passive voice acts merely ‘as a screen to thinly disguise the pursuit of power over others by white, middle-class, heterosexual men; the passive voice is a lie’ (Nicoll 2000:372). As such, I aim to extricate my writing from a removed, dehumanised voice by embedding the first-person pronoun throughout to further draw attention to my positionally and attempt to critique the commandingly white linguistics utilised in academic, feminist discourse.

Looking specifically at transnational and intersectional feminism challenges the ‘relations of economic, hereto-patriarchal, white supremacist, and ableist domination’ (2016:19) and spans physical and ethnographic borders. This enables more naunced discourse that disrupts the ‘meta-historical naivety’ (Nochlin 1971:2) of centralising of the Western voice. American law professor and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberly Crenshaw, coined the term intersectional feminism in 1989 and describes it as ‘a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other’ (Crenshaw 1991). When ‘critiquing the whiteness of Australian [and international] feminism’ (Qian 2013), the use of an intersectional lens allows for an expansion of notions within identity politics. The use of an intersectional lense useful in unpacking Kusama's practice and her own positionality within femenisms, acting as a source for social empowerment and reconstruction (Crenshaw 1991).

Transnational Feminism; Womens movements in Asia.

In a departure from the one-dimentional and overwhelmingly white portrayals of a femenist experience, Jinghua Qian, a Shanghainese-Melbournian writer and media-maker explores this question of whether feminism ‘speaks for all women’ (Qian 2013) alongside their own experiences of queerness, diaspora and activism in Australia. During eir (Qian identifies with e/em/eir, Spivak pronouns) discussion alongside other feminists from multi-cultural backgrounds in a panel organised by the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, ey explain that ‘I also call myself a person of colour, which is a political identity based around solidarity between people who are racialised as non-white in this society’ (Qian 2013). Qian presents the way in which race, as an ‘axis of social oppression’ (Qian 2013) prevents feminism from representing the needs of all women, as it has traditionally pitted cultural traditions and progressive values against each other in unnecessary opposition (2013).

Qian ultimately contends that feminism should not try to speak for all women, and that Kusama’s own rejection of a femenist title is more-so perhaps a rejection of the whitewashed feminist expectations placed on many women of colour. Qian explaines that ‘I don’t want to speak for Indigenous women, for transgender women, for women in other countries and situations, even women whose lives might, in a glance, look similar to mine’ (Qian 2013). Instead they offer the idea that feminism/feminists simply do not need to always outwardly identify themselves with the linguistic label. It seems that for many women the title of a feminist feels like assimilation into Anglo-Australian culture and tends to ignore the cultural intricacies of different peoples experiences with feminism and activism in general (2013). In order for feminism to truly represent the needs and wants of women globally it needs to be understood that there is no set of specific guidelines, rules or directives that infer who is or can be a ‘feminist’.

Looking specifically at women's movements in Asia, there is importance in evaluating the semantics of feminism, which are convoluted, due to the word itself being overwhelmingly connected to a Western, colonialist frame-work of thought. Mina Roces and Louise Edwards argue that many Asian women refused self-proclamation as feminists throughout much of the twentieth century as the term’s Western values eclipsed culturally specific beliefs and ethics, usually appearing as ‘aggressively individualistic, anti-male, anti-children, and therefore anti-family’ (Roces and Edwards 2010:1). Additionally the diversity of differing cultural, socio-economic and political climates and regimes, ‘including democracies, dictatorships, authoritarianism, communism and socialism, as well as the political and social instability produced by war, set stark limits for activists of any form, feminist or not’ (Roces and Edwards 2010:3).

Specifically in Japan, where Kusama was raised and has returned to live and work, transnational feminism resurfaced from it’s ‘bourgeois-versus-socialist’ (Roces and Edwards 2010:93) dilemma prior to the 1940s (as well as a rejection of forced, white-American feminist values) and prospered within the post World War II era (2010:94). By the late 1970s and early 1980s gender-based violence against Asian women by the Japanese military began to be acknowledged alongside the ‘paradigm shift in women’s history from ‘women-as-victims’ to ‘women-as-agents’, occurring as the consciousness of the “comfort women” issue exploded in East Asia’ (Roces and Edwards 2010:91). The acknowledgement and awareness of the abuse endured by many Asian women during t World War II, that came with the formal collapse of the Japanese Empire, allowed for the dissipation of stigma surrounding transnational feminism and promoted a sense of unity on the subject of women's rights (Roces and Edwards 2010:105).

Such historical backgrounds offer insight into why many Asian women such as Kusama may not want/have wanted to identify with feminist theories. Whilst transnational feminism developed in Japan as a principle aspect of human rights activism, solidarity is still needed within global women’s movements in order to embrace the political and ethnographic differences within feminist dialogue, and feminist art. Returning to Jinghua Qian’s contention that, while ey have always identified as a feminist, ‘I don’t think it really matters whether someone calls themselves a feminist, womanist, for human rights or gender equality or women’s liberation, as long as we can agree on some basic values’ (Qian 2013). Decentralising Western ideologies from the intersection of feminist and art pedagogies and methods of teaching allows for an environment in which ‘possibilities for solidarity and agency are forged’(Kennedy, et al. 2021:3). Subsequently, ‘strategic transnational, transcultural, and transdisciplinary collaborations, dialogues, and exchanges’ (Kennedy, et al. 2021:3) are formed, aiding in the breaking down of exclusivism within art and mainstream feminism landscapes. Through such breakdowns, artists such as Kusama may be able to expand their own notions of femenism in order to find a framework of theory that benefits their personal, cultural and political identities.

Yayoi Kusama and he practice within a Feminist Praxis.

Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, born in Matsumoto in the spring of 1929, exposes ever-shifting feminist ideas, transnational explorations of self-discovery and endurances of ‘Otherness’ in her multi-media, decades-spanning career. However, as I have suggested, Kusama does not identify as a feminist, stating ‘I am too busy with myself to worry about a man-woman problem’ (Kusama 2020). Whilst she does not proclaim the feminist title, she does agree that those who wish to interpret her works though a feminist perspective may do so, with many of her bold performance pieces and installations overtly challenging female, and specifically Asian female stereotypes of passivity and ‘notions of the objectified Japanese female “Other” as a “subject” that is often seemingly “mastered” or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or the sexually available female’ (Foster 2010:267-275).

Kusama’s early work, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli's Field (1965), is an example of the way in which she cultivates space for herself as woman of colour and her valid anxieties within a Western art world. The work, first shown at Floor Show, Castellane Gallery, in New York, is presented within the white cube space which has typically catered to wealthy, White men, dissolving preconceived stereotypes of Asian femininity of meekness and docility. Comprising thousands of polka-dotted phallic shaped soft sculptures placed expansively around the room and reflected infinitely by surrounding mirrors, the piece directly references Kusama’s child-hood traumas relating to sexuality and men.

In Beyond ‘Japanese/Women Artists’ (2014), Midori Yoshimoto asserts that ‘being a Japanese woman was a double disadvantage in this context, she empowered herself by transgressing many taboos in producing phalli-studded objects and body-painting performances’ (2014:76). As a child Kusama was traumatised by her fathers infidelities. Thus she became obsessed and terrified of male genitalia, prompting her to confront the phallus, which in her works appear as playfully humorous as they are ‘angry, suffused with what was no doubt Kusama’s personal frustrations as a struggling female artist and foreigner in a chauvinistic, tightly circumscribed art community’ (Taft, et al. 2017:27). Kusama begs the viewer to experience her own encounters with this suffering, situating them within an infinite landscape, not just as voyeurs of her fears but as active members in the space. Being shown in an American gallery with a predominantly white audience perhaps positions confrontation with ones own implicit or explicit racial, sexual and/or political biases.

Lastly, I have included one Kusama’s early Happenings, Walking Piece, 1966, as an expose of her destruction of binaries and chauvinistic, orientalist stereotypes, and a rejection of racial superiority that presented Western attire as the default marker for power and modernity. During Walking Piece Kusama is dressed in traditional a bright pink floral kimono, and walks around New York and the surrounding area, drawing attention to her own experience of depersonalisation, explored through her ‘intrinsic understanding of the connections between activism and objects’ (Kusama, et al. 2012). The urban, American landscape greatly juxtaposes her traditional, feminine Kimono which stands out against the stark and Othering backdrop of the city.

The alienating dichotomy presented through the amalgamation of her pink kimono and an overtly patriotic, metropolitan area, with American flags and sparkling blue Cadillacs, uncovers a darker underbelly to the artistic space in which Kusama operated. In the American setting, white women saw Japanese women as ‘depoliticised and static when they wore kimono’ (Roces and Edwards 2010:96), suggesting that in order to be taken seriously as modern, progressive women they were to adopt western attire. By the 1920s and 1930s, when Kusama was born, Western-style clothing was already viewed as a marker of modernity and public influence for women in Japan and as racist principles of assimilation placed on migrant women, ‘Japanese women abroad were forced to reconsider their attire’(Roces and Edwards 2010:96), Kusama’s Walking Piece conversely highlights the importance of cultural traditions in a feminist praxis.

In conclusion, through an investigation into culturally specific forms of feminism we can free ourselves, in part, from the dominating white, middle-class feminist narrative that has been centralised to the detriment of the true values of women's rights. Yayoi Kusama’s practice subtly explores feminist thematics, further promoting important discourse around a transnational and intersectional feminist praxis.