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By Amran Abdiqadir-Mohamed, BA Global Development and Social Anthropology

Photograph conceived as a poster for Works by Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, 1961

The Tate Modern is now presenting the UK’s largest exhibition celebrating the ground-breaking and influential work of artist and activist Yoko Ono (b. 1933, Tokyo). The exhibition contains over 200 pieces spanning seven decades of her multidisciplinary artwork, focusing heavily on her impact on contemporary culture.

“All the themes of peace, aid, gender, and conflict are surpassed when we speak and write about people whom we love. It was a very grounding experience after witnessing and thinking about lots of difficult and almost insurmountable concepts/problems. I may have shed a tear myself.”

Three of the recurring themes in the exhibition were peace, the sky, and gender. As a child fleeing Tokyo during World War II, Ono found solace and refuge in the constant presence of the sky. One of the participatory works titled: Helmets (Pieces of the Sky), invited people to take puzzle pieces contained in German army helmets from the Second World War. Despite being dispersed, the puzzle pieces are still designed to come together and reform the sky. They suggest the possibility of healing through collective action or thought. During a winter post-Barbenheimer, I found this work to be particularly thought-provoking. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ had the world comprehend the tragedies of World War II through the eyes of one man; Ono’s exhibition encourages us to consider the events and their aftermaths from a new perspective. Her upbringing had a huge influence on all of her future work, making peace a large element of many of her exhibits and dedication to activism.

Helmets (Pieces from the Sky), 2001, Yoko Ono

Alongside her rockstar husband, John Lennon, Ono was a prominent advocate for peace and humanitarian campaigns throughout her career. One of the most well-known collaborations between the couple is their billboard campaign on Shaftesbury Avenue, London during the Vietnam War. Ono and Lennon co-opted the techniques of advertising and political propaganda, using mass media to quickly spread and amplify their message “WAR IS OVER! If you want it.” These billboards were also distributed in 12 cities around the world, eventually turning into posters, postcards, and radio/newspaper advertisements.

Ono and Lennon also took this campaign somewhere no one would have expected… to their bedrooms, more specifically to their beds. The exhibition showcased the 1969 film BED PEACE which documents the second of the couple’s infamous ‘bed-in’ events staged in Amsterdam and Montreal. During this time, Ono and Lennon invited peacemakers, other activists, artists, and journalists to engage in productive discussions on the Vietnam War. They claimed that they would not leave their beds until the war had ended. 

Image sources: All images were taken by me in the Tate Modern

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