By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
Mental illness is a struggle for many individuals and families, and at NAMI we don’t overlook the difficult aspects of these conditions. At the same time, we also celebrate the uniqueness and gifts of people with mental health conditions, who have made and continue to make important contributions to our communities.
It was my privilege to visit the most thought-provoking art exhibit I have ever seen. The artist, Yayoi Kusama, age 88, is one of the greatest living artists in the world today and she lives voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital in Japan with her studio nearby. Since childhood, she has experienced hallucinations and her art has evolved out of her experiences. Her art often consists of polka dots, which calmed noises in her head.
Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” has been on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where it will remain through mid-May (just long enough to coincide with the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month). From there, it will move to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto and Cleveland.
This exhibit has been nothing short of a blockbuster with people trying desperately to get tickets online and standing in line for hours. During my recent visit, it took more than two hours to get through the exhibit with most of the time spent waiting to get into one of the rooms with mirrors. The popularity and conversation around Kusama’s work is promoting a special kind of awareness—in which people learn not about clinical conditions, but rather, how a person with mental illness views the world. This is a gift she gives to all who enter the special worlds she creates.
Each room has a white, plain exterior and looks very small. When you enter the room, what you see, however, is not small at all. In fact, the way Kusama positions mirrors and objects leads to an amazing immersion in light that seems to go on forever– infinity. She shows how something can look boring, plain and uninviting on the outside, while being expansive, beautiful and unique on the inside.
You also see Kusama's paintings and sculpture in the exhibit, . But she used modern lights and mirrors to create something that was clearly consistent with her past work, but was still unique, fresh, relevant to the times and impactful in a whole new way. Kusama’s work provides a valuable lesson to us all: We should all be so fortunate to take our cause and our work and build on what has previously been done while transforming it into something even more life-changing.
In this exhibit, Kusama speaks on video about her desire to bring hope to people and inspire future generations. Her use of common, positive symbols like polka dots and pumpkins brings joy to all who see them. As we approach Mental Health Awareness Month next month, we reflect on the struggles of those with mental illnesses and celebrate the joy, hope and beauty that people can bring out of their experiences.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
text "NAMI" to 741741
Find Your Local NAMI