“I’m gonna stick around,” Yoko Ono warned her detractors in her 1997 song, Yes I’m a Witch. “We know you want things to stay as it is. It’s gonna change, baby.”

The criticisms she was defending herself against are well known: that she was an impostor in the male-dominated rock music world of her husband John Lennon. No matter that she was an established artist in her own right, a member of the international avant garde art movement Fluxus, while campaigning for world peace. No matter that her 1964 work Cut Piece, where she sat quietly while the audience took a pair of scissors to her best clothes and stripped her on stage, became a feminist classic. Or that her instruction pieces in the hit book Grapefruit invited readers to see the world in a new way through tasks such as “recording the sound of snow” – a sentiment she and her co-writer Lennon explored in Imagine, one of the most beloved pop songs of all time. In the 1960s and 70s, when the women’s liberation movement was in its infancy, she was an Asian woman in the public eye. In other words, a threatening anomaly and an easy target for racist and misogynistic abuse.

As it turned out, Yes I’m a Witch was prophetic: the cultural tide was about to turn. Sonic Youth included one of her scream pieces on their experimental album SYR4 in 1999. By 2007, alternative music royalty such as Cat Power, the Flaming Lips and Le Tigre lined up to remix her work. She was invited to curate 2013’s Meltdown music festival, while major art institutions such as New York’s Moma and London’s Serpentine Galleries exhibited her work. This month, Tate Modern will stage a far-reaching survey of the 90-year-old artist’s six-decade career. Here artists and writers who have been inspired by her work as an artist, musician, activist and, perhaps most of all, one of the world’s great nonconformists, give their insights into Ono’s staying power. Skye Sherwin

Guerrilla Girls, Women In The World 2016, Photograph: Katie Booth

Kathe Kollwitz

Guerrilla Girls artist and activist
Yoko never gives up. She is such a groundbreaking artist, feminist and activist who has triumphed over so much prejudice. In the Guerrilla Girls, we always try to do whatever we can to disrupt the public sphere, drawing attention to discrimination in the art world. One thing we really relate to is Yoko’s very important idea with the Bed-ins for Peace, with John Lennon in 1969, and other works that have had a giant effect on people. She always shows you something you didn’t really know before, in the hope of changing your mind.

Yoko Ono’s Peace is Power installation, first realised 2017, in Yoko Ono The Learning Garden of Freedom, Porto, 2020. Photograph: Filipe Braga

The Guerrilla Girls did a campaign in the UK a few years ago, asking people to go to their favourite museum, count the number of works by women and artists of colour v the number of naked females in artworks and let us know what they found out. We also installed one of our favourite billboards, the Estrogen Bomb [advertising a “new weapon” against male aggression], for Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival in 2013.

I first met Yoko in 2010, when she gave the Guerrilla Girls the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts. That’s one cool thing that she does, too: honouring political artists all over the world. When she started out, it was so difficult for any woman or artists of colour to get anywhere. The art world wants to love the few and throw everybody else out. She always wanted to reach out beyond the art world and use her platform to do that. At the Tate show, people won’t only have a wonderful time with her work, but also leave inspired to take action themselves. It’s life-affirming.

As told to Skye Sherwin

Peaches Photograph: Hadley Hudson


Yoko comes from a “give no fucks” place that I relate to. She’s going to express herself the way she wants. I love how her work is loud in a quiet way. Her gestures have to be finished by you, like the tasks for readers in her book of instructions Grapefruit. I especially love her 1967 film Bottoms, which was banned in the UK. It’s a movie of people’s bums, and to me, that’s super-inclusive and unrestricted. Everybody’s got a bum.

Our relationship started when she asked me to remix her song Kiss, Kiss, Kiss in 2007. When she came to Berlin for her 80th birthday in 2013, I performed Yes I’m a Witch, my favourite Yoko song, with the Plastic Ono Band. On stage, she’s really spontaneous. While we were singing, she looked into my eyes, egging me on, like: “You’re a powerful witch.”

Cutting edge … Yoko gets her clothes cut off in Cut Piece, 1964. Photograph: Yoko Ono

Then she asked me to perform Cut Piece at Meltdown in 2013. As much as people think I get naked all the time on stage, I’ve never been fully naked. I was terrified. But I have never learned so much from a performance. I told her: “I want to do this the way that you have done it. I don’t want to move and I’m down for them cutting every single bit of cloth off my body.” She said: “Anybody can do it the way they do it.”

She doesn’t want to give you direction, she wants you to have the experience. I’m sitting there with the scissors in front of me and there’s such drama, conflict, camaraderie. Some people wanted to protect me, others wanted to steal my shoe, or cut my hair. There was a whole universe. And I was just a witness to it.

As told to Skye Sherwin

Jean Yoon Photograph: Denise Grant

Jean Yoon

Actor and writer
I came of age as a woman in the early 1980s, when, after John Lennon’s murder, Yoko Ono became the target of a toxic mix of racism, sexism and anti-elitist, anti-art sentiments. She was called a witch, blamed for the breakup of the Beatles, and her art was ridiculed. My hair was long like hers and I could not, under any circumstances, wear sunglasses without becoming the object of jeers or creepy innuendo.

I realised I didn’t know anything about her. So I dug into her work, and the more I learned, the more intrigued I was, and the angrier I became on her behalf. She was the object of the kind of vitriol that Courtney Love later received. In response to her 1981 song Walking on Thin Ice, one callow critic wrote: “Mark David Chapman could have saved us all a lot of grief by aiming just one foot to the right.”

The cheek of it … Yoko Ono, Film No 4 (Bottoms) 1966. Photograph: © Yoko Ono

My research led me to create the multimedia performance art comedy The Yoko Ono Project, which premiered in Toronto in 2000, and tackles art and female identity from an Asian diasporic perspective. It brings together Ono’s work in various media, interwoven with the experiences of three Asian Canadian women who meet at a Yoko Ono event. With Ono’s support, I was able to incorporate her music, instruction poems, sculptures, films and words. I was lent clips from her films as well as an original 9 x 9 slide of Blood Object, a haunting blood-stained high-heeled shoe – one in a series created in response to her husband’s assassination. I wanted audiences to experience the breadth, whimsy, beauty and humour of her work, and to inspire Asian women like myself to say: “Go ahead, call me Yoko. You can’t hurt me. Not through her.”

As told to Skye Sherwin

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Moby Photograph: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Support + Feed


My first and funniest encounter with Yoko was in the late 1980s, when I was studying at SUNY Purchase in New York. For a class on surrealism, my friend Paul and I decided to make a movie about a giant mushroom that he’d found. We imagined it was actually a space alien pod. We filmed it all over New York on these weird mushroom adventures. At one point we were filming on 72nd Street, and we looked up and Yoko was standing there smiling. She asked us what we were doing so we told her, then she and her friend just laughed and walked away.

The second encounter was at a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall after 9/11, to raise money for relief efforts and to honour the music of John Lennon. I played Across the Universe with Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright. Yoko came backstage; of course she didn’t remember our giant mushroom meeting but I told her the story and she laughed. And then she said: “I brought one of John’s shirts, if you want to wear it.” She told me she hadn’t washed it since he’d died. It fit perfectly, which was weird because I’d always assumed he was bigger than me. The moment the show was over I gave the shirt back.

Art and craft … Yoko Ono’s, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), 2016. Photograph: /Yoko Ono/Musacchio/ Ianniello & Pasqualini

When I was asked to do a remix for her 2016 album Yes, I’m a Witch Too, I said of course, as a free gesture of respect and appreciation. But I also said: “If you feel like paying me, all I want is a small piece of art from Yoko. I don’t care what it is – it could be a toothbrush with a ribbon tied around it.” I got a tiny little card with the words: “Ask the clouds to remember. Yoko 2013”.

I think it’s remarkable that, considering she was one of the most unfairly maligned people of the 1970s and the 80s, she seemed to never be that defensive. She stayed active, she kept involved with the world. That fortitude is impressive. When everyone hates you, it’s a very hard thing to recognise that their opinions don’t ultimately matter.

As told to Gabrielle Schwarz

Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Jonathan Jones

Guardian art critic
One thing I know about Yoko Ono is that she can say a lot in 20 minutes. That’s how long I had to interview her at the Guggenheim Bilbao a decade ago, when she was 81, yet her ideas and memories had an imagistic lucidity that made her philosophy instantly compelling. “The ladder John had to climb up was very high,” she said of her artwork Yes Painting, in which a ladder leads to the ceiling where you use a magnifying glass to read the tiny word “Yes”. Her words were literal yet seemed poetic: John Lennon, that bolshie rock star from Liverpool, had a long climb to reach the ethereal visionary heights.

Fruit of her labour … Yoko Ono, Apple, 1966. Photograph: /Thomas Griesel/Moma, NY

Speaking of her performance Cut Piece, first staged in Tokyo in 1964, in which audience members were invited to snip off pieces of her clothes, she denied that it was angry or a protest, instead explaining its origins in esoteric philosophy: “I was originally thinking of the Buddha and how he gave everything up.” Ono was not only Lennon’s lover but his guru, and a much better one than any of the other Beatles found. Her art is about acceptance, meditation, claiming your time and space to be. If Buddhism is one source, this way of thinking interfolded beautifully with the radicalism of the 1960s Fluxus movement, which sought to replace art objects with instructions, musical scores and acts. In the eyes of the Fluxus group, art is only real in the moment we interact with it and through it interact with others. Ono literally embodied this vision in her Cut Piece, accepting chance and letting the world act on her.

She also defied the cliche of the 1960s as the age of pop art. There was nothing populist about Fluxus, with its appetite for drone music and 24-hour performances. So when she met Lennon it was a marriage of the most popular pop group of the era and one of its most obscure and enigmatic art movements.

Yet you can’t separate Ono’s solo art from her experimental life with Lennon. Their bed-in for peace was Fluxus for the masses, bringing the freedom and courage of avant garde art into pop culture, letting the mockers mock so long as it reached millions who might care. We all have a high ladder to climb. Yoko Ono’s art is a map upwards, into the sky above us.

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind is at Tate Modern, London, 15 February to 1 September.


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