Nick Cave Started His Artist Activism with a Single Twig

Susan Benner | July 24, 2019 | People Feature


Artist Nick Cave

Artist Nick Cave began to see himself as a messenger in 1992 after the Los Angeles Police Department officers who brutally beat Rodney King were acquited. L.A. erupted in riots. Cave was teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and thinking about himself as a young black male, he said in a 2018 Smithsonian video. He was sitting in a park and "feeling dismissed, discarded, viewed as less than." He began picking up twigs—they too seemed insignificant—and taking them back to his studio without knowing why. He eventually cut those twigs into 3-inch lengths, wired them to a man-size head-to-toe wearable suit/sculpture that rustled when he put it on and completely masked his identity. He named it "Soundsuit."


"Soundsuit," 2008, mixed media including embroidery, vintage toys, fabric, metal and mannequin

Twenty-seven years and 500 "Soundsuits" later, issues of race, gender and class have not gone away. Cave has used twigs, fabric, beads, doilies, human hair, fake hair, fake fur, feathers, buttons, sequins and toys to create fantastical pyschological and physical armor—costumes that mask the wearer's race, gender and class to facilitate interaction without preconception or judgment. He's a sculptor, a dancer, a performance artist, an installation artist.

"Creative people find their role in the world," says Cave. "Art became the tool that I use to do the work that I'm interested in doing." Cave sees himself as an artist with a civic responsibility: "Artists are the medium, the vehicle for change. The message is based on what's going on in the world; how do I find ways to use art to address that change?"


“Until,” 2016, installation at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

And now may be a more pivotal time than any. "2020 is going to be very interesting for all of us," he says. "How do we keep the conversation open? I'm on that mission. We may have our differences, but through creative endeavors, we can have shared moments."

Cave holds an endowed chair in fashion design at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and teaches two days a week. His work is collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the High Museum in Atlanta; the Denver Art Museum; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Contemporary art Chicago; the Trapholt Museum of Modern Art in Kolding, Denmark; and many others.


“Tondo,” 2012, mixed media including beaded and sequined fabric, and wood

Cave is Anderson Ranch Arts Center's 2019 International Artist Award honoree. "Nick is such a polymath," says Helen Molesworth, Anderson Ranch's curator-in-residence. "He embodies so much of what the ranch stands for: the equality between disciplines, the attention to craft. He understands that art can do more than sit on the wall, that it's about both pleasure and politics. Through a strategy of costume, performance and dance, he persuades us to lower our guards. If ever there were a time to lower our guard, it's now." Coversation with Nick Cave, July 17, 12:30PM, free, Schermer Meeting Hall; Annual Recognition Dinner, July 18, 6PM, from $2,500, Hotel Jerome


Photography by: Nick Cave Photo By Sandro | Soundsuit photo by James Prinz/Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery