It is generally accepted that museums and galleries plan their exhibits well in advance. Whether the show is existing and traveling from place to place, or is developed in-house or by a contracted firm, it is not uncommon for a museum professional to be working on an exhibit scheduled for the spring of 2019 in the spring of 2017. Exhibits focusing on racial unrest and injustice that have opened within the past six months, therefore, truly reflect how long artists’ and cultural organizations’ consciences have been consumed by the issues America has been forced to confront since the 2016 election.
The impressive, if diminutive, Nick Cave exhibit at the Jepson Center in Savannah, Georgia situates itself within this recent wave of social justice-conscious exhibits. Nick Cave is an “uncategorizable” African-American “artist working between sculpture, installation, performance, video, designed object and fashion” . He specializes in the conceptualization and creation of one-of-a-kind ‘soundsuits,’ a blend of sculpture, collage and fiber art that “camouflage the body, masking and creating a second skin that conceals race, gender, and class, forcing the viewer to look without judgment” .
According to the introductory panel just inside the exhibit gallery, Cave began constructing Soundsuits after the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police, which was captured on video and played repeatedly on news outlets across the country, to no avail – the officers involved were acquitted of all charges . In response, Cave created a way of building a unique identity completely separate from race, class, gender or ethnicity – a soundsuit. He was intrigued by the idea of a truly new outward identity, an appearance disconnected from societal prejudice. According to Cave, the protective nature of his suits is both metaphorical and literal: “…like a coat of armor, they embellish the body while protecting the wearer from outside culture” .
The exhibition space was stark and modern, with minimal interruptions of color – most often a light-bright neon yellow, used as the background fill for the main and subtext panels. The curatorial statement regarding the exhibition’s contents were clear: this art aligns with our mission and the architecture of our building, and as such, no embellishment is necessary. Another refreshing absence was a general lack of labels. The omission of object labels containing classifying information about the suits also aligned the exhibit with the artist’s canon: “Cave’s iconic soundsuits are intentionally meant to defy immediate categorization…” .
Cave’s soundsuits succeed in simultaneously sloughing off any specific connection to a particular western identity, and building links between western popular culture and African traditions in art, dance, and music. Additionally, the suits are constructed using unmodified found objects which betray hints of their original uses. The narratives of salvaged buttons, toys, carpets, and towels converge into a novel history free from the constraints of human categorization, particularly when they are mobilized by the wearer,
Each soundsuit is a visual feast, exploding with life and texture. Cave, who trained as a dancer at the Alvin Ailey School in New York, performs both alone and with other dancers while wearing the suits , using their physical textures and the objects used to construct them to create sounds and interactions that would not be possible in traditional western costume. The memory of his movement, which is also exhibited in looping short documentary about his work that plays in a smaller offshoot room, gives the works on display a sense of life and movement even as they stand motionless on mannequins in the gallery. The soundsuits’ ability to speak through the movements of its wearer also contribute to the vibration of the exhibition space. A projected video of one of Cave’s performance pieces in the soundsuits is silent but for the noise made by the various suits employed throughout the work. Abacuses rattle, washboards are rubbed and banged, and buttons clack together as they catch on one another. The sounds of this piece echo throughout the space, allowing the soundsuits to come to life even as they sit still.
The exhibit’s only interactive is deceptively simple. Three different silhouettes of Cave’s soundsuits cling to the wall, each encapsulating several related questions, which visitors are meant to answer by responding in written form on a post-it that they then place close to the original question on the wall. The deception lies in the rapid escalation of the questions from simple (what do you think a soundsuit feels like to wear?) to complex (what is a disguise or a mask?). The effort needed to respond to each question is slightly different, and as a result, many different types of visitors have chosen to respond. This simple connection point to the exhibit’s content appeals to children, browsers, and scholars alike, making it enjoyable, participatory, and satisfying.
Cave’s suits are just as relevant today as it was when he began creating them in 1992. “In a way it’s sad that it’s 25 years later and we’re in the same cycles, but I think that’s what art is for and why it’s always relevant,” associate curator of modern and contemporary art Rachel Reese pointed out in an interview for ConnectSavannah.com . Amidst a time of political turmoil and social justice activism, Reese also pointed out that Cave’s work “speaks about how we construct identity, how artists have an important role in activism today. It’s really important and necessary” .
Museums have recently been taking significant steps to answer the call to take action against oppression and inequality, and are receiving well-deserved positive press and attention for their activism . But it is important for the museum community to remember that artists have been activists for centuries–a fact that is evident through close study of their work. Yes, museums and cultural organizations should take a stand, speak out and put their mission where their mouth is, but they should also consider reinterpreting their collections to reflect the important statements each object makes about the politics of its time.
Whether an institution determines to put out a statement or create a performance of activism and protest, more powerful, nuanced, and complex examples activism may already be hanging on the wall, or sitting in an artist’s studio. It would behoove museum professionals, therefore, to take stock of such works, and endeavor to use them above all else as symbols of resistance. The Nick Cave exhibit at the Jepson Center has done just that. My only gripe is that as a visitor, I was only able to explore a finite selection of Cave’s fascinating and beautiful alternative world.
Nick Cave will be on view in the Jepson Center until April 23rd, 2017.