Sculpture reinvents itself as sound, as music and as a source of protection in the hands of Nick Cave.

Performing artist Nick Cave. (James Prinz Photography)

The event was part of a week of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies (AIE) program, as featured by Mark Jenkins.Cave participated in an AIE cultural-exchange program earlier this year by making a bas-relief monument for the new embassy in Dakar, Senegal.

His main work, however, remains in his Soundsuits. In the past 20 years, Cave collected various found materials — such as twigs, beads, buttons and human and synthetic hair — to clothe his Soundsuits, which are akin to traditional African ceremonial masks. When Cave dons the suits, the sculptural pieces evolve into extensive audio performances , generating a distinctive symphony of sound when the materials reverberate and rustle against one another through his physical movements.

In 1992, Cave created his first suit — from twigs — in reaction to the LAPD’s arrest and beating of black motorist Rodney King, a case that would inflame the city and spark the riots. 

Style Blog chatted with the artist as he ruminated on his creative process and student responses to his work:

What moved you to create your first twig Soundsuit, based on Rodney King, in 1992?


I happened to be in [an outdoor] park thinking about the Rodney King incident after reading about it in the newspaper. I looked down on the ground, and saw all these twigs I collect, and [created] a sculpture from this mess on the ground. I was interested in finding an association of disregarded material in a literal sense — to represent emotion.

As a black male, the [discrimination] makes you question if you could’ve been a victim of circumstance, as well. You’re forced to ask:Am I significant in the world? I felt devalued after this incident and I wanted to take action against this incident [that] so profound to me.


Why did you choose materials like twigs and hair to create a particular sound?

I was responding to the significance of identity, of how — similar to twigs — sometimes people can feel disregarded easily. I built this sort of suit of armor and by putting it on, I realized that I could a make a sound from moving in it. It made me think of ideas around protest, and how we should be a voice and speak louder.

When I put [the Soundsuit] on, it functioned as a barricade between the outer world and me. It felt scary and seductive. All those things also led me to think about awareness of society, where certain individuals appear to be scary, especially black males. It’s disconcerting when you cross the street and you hear car doors locking.

Nick Cave, in one of his Soundsuits made from synthetic hair. (James Prinz Photography)

Sometimes I use synthetic hair, which becomes what I call an alternative type of “urban fur.” There is a really hands-on approach to my work, of coming up with something and stripping things down.

The materials Cave uses in his Soundsuits provide fluid movements and physical texture. (James Prinz Photography)

What do you think of the students’ responses to your work? And why do you think artist collaboration is important?


I think that it’s important for me to be involved in [Wednesday night’s AIE] 50th-anniversary kickoff because I want to be able to create an opportunity to interface with young people, and this is the next generation of artists. They are part of the next 50 years of art.

I sent the students a number of videos that they were able to look at it and reinterpret in spoken word, sound instruments and sound components attached to the body. There will be dance involved, as a trans-interdisciplinary platform where students will continue this full collaborative process of different kinds of art.

Nick Cave is among the 20-plus artists participating in the AIE celebration. Events to celebrate the 50th anniversary will continue through the week with a Friday afternoon art demonstration by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who will commemorate the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary concurrently, with pyrotechnic art explosion Nov. 30, at 3 p.m., at the Freer’s North Entrace. Cave will also perform (at 8 p.m. Friday) with the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Radical Showband for a private event in the Smithsonian American Art Museum .