An array of hanging sculptures and a glass vitrine holding three objects against a white gallery wall
Works by Nick Cave (American, b. 1959) on view at Philadelphia Museum of Art. All works by Nick Cave © Nick Cave, Courtesy of the artist & Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Ancestral Relics: A Conversation with Nick Cave

Alissa Roach

Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow Alissa Roach speaks with the artist about the historic, familial, and personal perspectives in his early works.

Though Nick Cave is best known for his Soundsuits–sculptural forms based on the scale of his body–there is much to be learned about him from his other bodies of work. We invited him to shed light on seven objects he made early in his career, which are part of the museum’s collection and on view in the gallery installation Ghosts and Fragments through winter 2023. By focusing our questions on artistic intention and personal histories behind making these works, we were able to gain insight into the entirety of Cave’s artistic process. I was joined in conversation with Cave by my colleagues Erica Battle and Alison Tufano.

Two sculptures hanging on a white wall; one consists of an arrow-shaped bracket from which hangs a rocket-like form; the other appears to be coiled rope or hair
Arrow, 1998–2000, and Metal Ring, 1998–2000, by Nick Cave (American, b. 1959), 2016-199-1a,b and
Two sculptures hanging on a white wall; the first looks like a long animal tail; the other a metal blade
Foxtail, 1998–2000, and Cutter and Braid, 1998–2000, by Nick Cave (American, b. 1959), 2016-199-7 and 2016-199-2

PMA: How would you say these early works are connected to your current practice of using found objects and assemblage?

Nick Cave: Objects and assemblage have always been the foundation of my practice. It’s crucial, when you’re a young kid, to be able to make things out of nothing, able to trust and know that you can make a collage just using trash. I’ve always been curious about my surroundings, and the potential and the magic that holds. Through every stage of my artistic career, assemblage, excess, and surplus have been my main sources.

PMA: Tell us a bit about these works. Where and how did you create them?

NC: I created all of these works in my studio in Chicago from 1998 through 2000. The hair used in Hairballs #1, #2, and #3 was sourced from a previous “anti-fur-coat” performance series, in which the coat I created was made of wigs. This series of performances was done for exhibitions, but in their current form they serve as a renegotiation with the performance itself, or a way for the performance to live on, acting as reliquaries and symbolizing a transcendence of life.

Three brown spheres covered with organic material in a glass vitrine
Hairballs #1, #2, and #3, 1998–2000, by Nick Cave (American, b. 1959), 2016-199-4–6

These works were originally a part of a series titled Scalped Formalities. During this period I decided to make three objects a day, exploring impulse and letting the subconscious guide my process. I was specifically interested in multiple objects morphing into one and the marriage of two opposites, and how these relations created a blurred timeline between present, past, and roots. These objects eventually came together as a wall of “relics,” “specimens,” “artifacts,” or “fetish objects.” I viewed them as similar to something that could be found in a natural history museum.

An array of sculptures made of hair, wood, metal, and other materials hung on a gallery wall, with a large human-shaped multimedia sculpture on a plinth to the right
Installation view of Reparation I, 2000, from Nick Cave: Amalgamations, Allentown Art Museum, September 17-December 31, 2000.

PMA: What were the circumstances that led to you making these artworks?

NC: The passing of my first grandparent was the beginning of my process. Dealing with this loss, the tool wall in my grandfather’s working shed became a source of inspiration. Hair became a sacred object and the act of making became a form of ritual rooted in intuitive space. These objects are sentimental; they can be viewed from historic, familial, and personal perspectives. Their domestic and utilitarian sensibility is important.

Aging is a part of this work. I’m not sure if I believe anything lasts forever.

PMA: Malik Gaines’s contribution to MCA Chicago’s newest catalogue titled Nick Cave: Forothermore relates your Soundsuit works to African masquerade. Would you describe this relationship as intentional?

NC: It’s African masquerade, it’s Mardi Gras, it’s looking at Haitian vodou flags. My interest lies in couture, and a high intensity of adornment and embellishment. I’ve always been interested in making cloth that’s dimensional, looking at African textiles and cloth in a broader sense and thinking about how it is built. The abundance of materials has always been the beginning of my process.

PMA: A comparison can be made between Hairballs and nkisi, which can be defined as “any object or material substance invested with sacred energy and made available for spiritual protection.” These figures originated in the Congo Basin in Central Africa and are made and used throughout the African diaspora. They often feature nails and blades driven in to energize their powers.

A sphere composed of gray and rusted nails and brown interwoven hair
Hairballs #1, 1998–2000, by Nick Cave (American, b. 1959), 2016-199-4
Power Figure, 20th century, made in Democratic Republic of the Congo (Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund, 71.3)

NC: When I see these two side by side I think about the history of the object and its relationship to a particular sort of culture, and its function and purpose. The Hairball is this contemporary object that operates the same way. It’s containing an act that once was, and spiritually binding it together, again as a form of protection or a guardian of sorts.

PMA: Many of your works are made in response to violent tragedy and great loss. Did these early works stem from similar concerns?

NC: I’m always curious about how we can honor, identify, and pay homage to those who have come before us. Gathering resources that are close to me, and that are also part of a history of makers. I come from a family of makers, craftsmen, seamstresses, artists. I illustrate this through these early objects, and the tools they are composed of are used in this way.

PMA: You have said that some of your works “act as interventions.” Would you assign the same quality to any of these works?

NC: It comes down to value, value based in the space of racism and injustice. Who is to say my life is not of value? I view the act of intervention as using the current moment as a moment of rebellion, with color and pattern as a sense of amplifying and going against. I’ve always used this as a source of protection, speaking loud to enhance and glorify my presence because I am here. My identity as a Black male has always been defined by others. I’m negotiating my place in the moment of history and what’s currently going on in the world.

See these works in conversation with objects by Robert Gober, Lonnie Holley, and Susan Rothenberg in Ghosts and Fragments, on view in Gallery 270 through winter 2023.

Artist Alissa Roach was Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow in the department of Contemporary Art. She is currently an art exhibitions fellow at the William Way LGBT Community Center.

Nick Cave is a Chicago-based artist and educator who working between the visual and performing arts through a wide range of mediums including sculpture, installation, video, sound, and performance. Cave is well known for his Soundsuits, sculptural forms based on the scale of his body, initially created in direct response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. The exhibition Nick Cave: Forothermore is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum November 18, 2022–April 10, 2023.

Special thanks to Bob Faust for his assistance.

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.