Nick Cave, American, born 1959
Found rugs and mixed media
102 × 40 × 23 in. (259.1 × 101.6 × 58.4 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Barbara and Michael Gamson in memory of Peter C. Marzio
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Soundsuit (Social Studies)
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Identify bias and support with historical evidence a point of view on a social studies issue or event
- Create written, oral, and visual presentations of social studies information using effective communication skills
- Apply the process of historical inquiry to research, interpret, and use multiple sources of evidence to elaborate on social studies issue or event
Connecting to the Work of Art
Nick Cave’s 2011 Soundsuit in the MFAH’s collection presents an unwieldy, awkward, and confusing sense of proportion. At times, it seems almost familiar, standing on two feet and extending what could be limbs out from its body. But it is amorphous and difficult to discern what might be front or back, up or down. It is tempting to search for patterns or familiar forms, such asa face, in the surface decorations. The softly woven fibers overlap with stitching connecting these disparate cloth pieces. The soft fabric invites touch, but the enigmatic form frustrates understanding.
Nick Cave was born in Fulton, Missouri in 1959, and works primarily in Chicago, Illinois. His primary body of work consists of Soundsuits like the one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s collection.
Since 1992, Nick Cave’s primary body of work has been devoted to Soundsuits like the one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s collection. This work was borne of the confusion and chaos of the Rodney King . In 1991, an African-American construction worker, Rodney King, was violently beaten in Los Angeles by police officers. Footage of the beating was broadcast across the country, and the police officers in question were brought to trial on charges of excessive force—and acquitted. Within hours, Los Angeles erupted in violent riots that lasted six days. Two of the officers were later convicted in a federal civil rights trial, and two were acquitted. Although Cave was born in Fulton, Missouri in 1959, and works primarily in Chicago, Illinois, he was deeply affected by these events as were many African Americans and civil rights activist across the country, and he began a body of work in response. Asking the question, “what does it feel like to be discarded, dismissed, profiled?”, Cave began to collect discarded objects and fashion alternate bodily realities out of them. Cave’s Soundsuits are imaginary suits of armor, concealing signs of race, class, and gender embedded in the body, protecting the wearer from being judged or targeted according to their body or dress. Cave later commented on this experience saying, “When I was inside a suit, you couldn’t tell if I was a woman or man; if I was black, red, green, or orange; from Haiti or South Africa. I was no longer Nick. I was a shaman of sorts.” The suit could transform the wearer, not only protecting them but also infusing them with a sense of whimsy, nostalgia, and otherworldliness.
Cave’s Soundsuits are multilayered artworks. The suits are meant to be viewed as sculptures constructed out of discarded objects that take on new meanings once gathered together.
However, Soundsuits are also meant to be worn, activated by movement. Performers, dancers, students, and even the artist himself have worn the suits, dancing and moving to create alien sounds and stunning visual effects. Inspired by traditional African masks and headdresses, other suits are made of constellations of tin toys, countless feathers that shimmer and wave, sticks that rattle, or buttons that gleam and jangle. The MFAH 2011 Soundsuit, unlike others of its kind, does not make a loud noise when in motion. Its textile body dampens sound, transforming its wearer’s movements into stealthy rustles.
Cave’s Soundsuits are collaborative works; he often works with craftsmen, performers, choreographers, and schools to realize the construction and performance of the Soundsuits. He is aware of art’s transformative power—not only as an object, but also as a shared experience—and uses that power to spark conversation around such heated topics as race, class, gender, and violence. In a 2016 interview, Cave explained: “I want to change our way of engaging with one another. I want to use art as a form of diplomacy.”
Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking, and be careful about making assumptions.
- Look closely at the sculpture. How would you describe the form and its materials?
- How do you think the sculpture was constructed? Look closely, and hunt for signs that point to how it was made.
- Make an inventory of the colors that you see. How would you describe them? Are there certain areas where the colors are warmer, cooler, or brighter than in other parts of the sculpture?
- How would you describe the shape of this object? Move from bottom to top and describe its shape, as if you were describing it to someone who couldn’t see it.
- Imagine what it would be like to touch this sculpture. What would you feel? Where would you touch it first? Do you think this sculpture was meant to be touched? Whyor why not?
- If you are not standing next to the sculpture itself, find the exact dimensions of the work. Mark the height and width on a wall or chalkboard. Now, take inventory of your body in relation to this new shape. How does the Soundsuit relate to your body? How do you, or would you, feel when standing next to it?
- Why do you think that this sculpture has feet? Does it have other body parts?
- Why do you think that Cave named this work Soundsuit? How does this title inform your interpretation of the object?
- Imagine that you are the sculpture; its feet are your feet. What do you see, hear, feel, smell? How do you move throughout the world? What do people think of you when you walk into a room or down the street?
- Why do you think Cave chose to make this Soundsuit out of rugs? Consider the meaning of rugs, both as materials and as symbols.
- Imagine what this suit would be like if it was made of a different material. What if it was made of metal, fur, glass, or wood? How would it be different? Would you feel the same standing next to it? If you were the sculpture, would you feel differently, or move differently if covered in a different material?
Connecting to the Classroom
This object work of art helps students to be more comfortable with challenging, multi-faceted ideas and issues. Many times in studying history, it is important to recognize the multiple factors that lead to a world event or the multiple impacts a world event had on different groups of people, political entities, economic issues, etc. Understanding and discussing the issues that lead to the creation of this Soundsuit as well as the performances with this Soundsuit could help students see the multiple issues with race, gender, and ethnicity that we still see in our world.
Questions to Ask
- Were you surprised or confused by this object? Why?
- Have you ever worn a costume that obscured or changed your appearance? How did it feel? How did other people interact with you?
- Have you ever interacted with other people in costumes? If so, how would you describe that experience?
There are many details and “faces” of this object that must be addressed, from materials to usage and maneuverability, understanding the artist’s message and reason behind creating this piece. Understanding the multiple layers that create the “big idea” of this piece will take time and support, but it is an important skill to practice for students to understand the multiple factors that lead to an event or the multiple forces that influence government decisions for example. It is also important for students to feel that they can ask questions to better understand a topic or idea and this object gives students multiple opportunities to question what they are seeing.
Subject Matter Connection
Observe Soundsuit using Conversation Starters.
Investigate how Soundsuits come to life in dance performances via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpNcmh3rxko.
By providing the wearer a form of camouflage, Soundsuit offers a new sense of freedom in personal expression by creating a second skin that hides gender, race, and class, thus compelling the audience to observe without judgment (as it was used in response to the events surrounding the death of Rodney King ).
How might this Soundsuit be used to convey the multiple factors that led to a historical event and the impacts that event had on different groups of people, political entities, economic issues, etc. ?
Writing Prompt: “Inside the Suit”
Students write from a particular point of view on a social studies issue or event, using the “mask” of the suit as a vehicle for free expression.
Present writings to class for class to decipher the event and point of view represented from “inside the suit”
Optional: Since Nick Cave’s work is sometimes inspired by African art traditions and ceremonial dresses, compare his work to African tribal masks at MFAH (click to view Elephant Mask at MFAH) or tribal dances of indigenous groups around the world.
Art21, a public documentary television series, featured Cave in its eighth season. An interview with Cave, along with photos and videos of his works, can be found here.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.