Nick Cave conceived of his sculpture series, Soundsuits, as protective layers for Black people after police were acquitted of beating Rodney King in 1992 in Los Angeles. He transformed the pain that stirred inside him into art. Last year, Cave honored George Floyd in Soundsuit 8:46. He titled the work after the media’s initial, inaccurate reporting of the length of time officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, which camera footage later confirmed to be 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Cave paid tribute to Floyd’s life with a gorgeous suit covered in flowers. Soundsuit 8:46 is the first of Cave’s work at LACMA and in any museum in Los Angeles.
Cave’s Soundsuits are both sculptures and vessels for performance, intended to be worn. The sound referenced in the series title signifies the noise the suits make when performers wear them, or the sound they suggest to viewers in quiet galleries. The works also confront the spectacle of Black peoples’ skin. Cave’s elaborate suits obscure class, gender, and race, making bodies impossible to objectify.
The artist attributes his interest in sewing and building to his grandparents, who were furniture and quilt makers in Fulton, Missouri. As one of seven boys, Cave learned to transform hand-me-downs early. He repurposes twigs, buttons, toys, and fabrics he collects from his neighborhood, flea markets, and yard sales into fantastical works, bringing domestic materials into public life.
Cave walked through a Chicago park after he heard about King. “I remember that I just felt depressed,” he reflected, “and I remember thinking that my identity is really only protected in the privacy of my own home. That the moment that I leave this space, I could be just another profile.” Staring down at the ground, his eyes focused on a twig. Cave compared King’s life to the twig–discarded. He gathered a bundle of them and constructed his first suit of armor. “I was making this second skin, something to protect my spirit. I put it on and moved in it. I realized that was the protest—the sound it made. In order to be heard, you gotta make sound.”
Soundsuit 8:46 will be featured in LACMA’s upcoming exhibition Imagining Black Diasporas: 21st Century Art and Poetics. Movement and transformation recur as themes in the exhibition examining contemporary diasporic experience. Energy underlies the logic of all of Cave’s work. Even when his Soundsuits are not worn for performance, they suggest a body in motion—free from violence and oppression. Cave’s tribute replaces the sight of Floyd’s asphyxiation with the vibrant vision of his life. He titled the work after news reports’ error. Cave brings attention to how the truth is constructed, and makes sure audiences know it, and never forget it.
During our 37th annual Collectors Committee Weekend (April 21–22, 2023), members of LACMA's Collectors Committee generously helped the museum acquire 10 works of art spanning a breadth of eras and cultures. We'll be sharing information about these acquisitions throughout the week here on Unframed.