Habits of Mind

  • Overcome Fear
  • Communicate

Soundsuit (ELA)

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.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Critique and evaluate how the author's use of language informs and shapes the perception of readers
  • Write expressive literary texts effectively
  • Construct visual images based on text descriptions
  • Compose literary texts such as fictional narratives and character analysis using genre characteristics and craft



Since this work of art can seem ambiguous to students it can offer a chance to remove students’ fear of being wrong and remaining open to a range of ideas.

  • Observe Soundsuit, using the following guide: (link coming soon)
  • Choose a character from a novel. Select multiple mentor texts that play a role in the development of characterization.
  • Create a “soundsuit” for that character using various real and/or symbolic materials, using the mentor texts previously chosen as reference points.
  • Creative Writing: Imagine the ‘soundsuit’ comes to life and can speak in the voice of the character. Write an expressive literary narrative from that character’s point of view.  Incorporate writing techniques learned from the mentor texts.

  • 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?

This work of art offers a chance to take creative risks through conversation while learning more about the artist and the work of art.

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

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.”

Sources Consulted:

https://art21.org/artist/nick-cave/ https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/eecb/2ac8810a4f3f23e5b4e623cc91fec8b01e7e.pdf


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