As It Was and Still Is
As It Was and Still Is is a reflection on the persistent, cyclical, and habitual violence against Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in America. As It Was and Still Is is the revelation that for Every. Single. Instance. Of. Brutality. Nick. Cave. Will. Fight. Back. with memory, archive, and radical joy.
Cave’s works plant feet in two modes of artistic success. Conceptually and cerebrally, each work drills to the depths of our intellectual understanding of what truths are, or aren’t. Aesthetically, every one of his works evokes an instinctual and emotional response, which surpasses conscious intellectualization and embraces unbridled feeling. The Soundsuits, for example, which are a melange of resplendent, glinting, objects (sunglasses, beads, sequins, beads, toys, copper trinkets), command a childlike joy and elation. By contrast, Unarmed (2018), radiates grief in the desolate contrast between the bronze gesture and the quaint beauty of the colorful U-wreath.
With the brilliant stark-lushness and grace that Cave is known for, this collection of works addresses the centuries long pandemic that has plagued America for centuries – the unyielding cancers that are police brutality and gun violence.
-Jasmine Wahi, Holly Block Social Justice Curator, The Bronx Museum
As a static sculptural composition, Untitled (2018) illustrates the fragile and fraught dichotomy of Blackness and Americanness. Bronze casts of the artists own arms and hands ground the composition. At the top left, a right hand tenderly pinches a wreath of cascading vintage metal flowers. The golden calla lilies dangle just above the severed head planted on a placemat of shotgun shells in the configuration of the American flag. It is worth noting that this flag is a found object, gleaned from a thrift shop in Missouri: the artist often incorporates bits of Americana that are extracted from flea markets and thrift stores across the country. To the right stands a totem: a squat stool serves as a base for a stack of delicately folded handkerchiefs, which defy physical logic as they hold up a fisted arm, which is also a cast of the artist’s own body. The piece is a triangulation of a strained and strangled tension that persists in America. In this state of agitation, the piece reminds us that what we face in our lifetimes is not the unravelling of an America; rather, that the relationship between White America and Black and/or Indigenous America was never truly woven together in the first place.
The piece is direct in its iconography, and yet its meaning remains illegible. Or perhaps, it speaks to the flimsiness of legibility. In As It was and Still Is “meaning” is relative and perspectival. Death and Violence in America are both despised and revered. Death and Violence for America and In America are part of our national obsession: in some instances, we revere our American heroes who sacrifice all for the country. In other instances, we kill those very same would-be heroes because we deem them as not only expendable, but as superbly predatorial, and dangerous. Is the head that rests on a bed of bullets the head of an American hero? Who has the right to be an American hero?
Untitled (2018) is a beautiful horrorshow. It is a scene out of a film about Jeffrey Dahmer, in which Dahmer’s character is the stand in for America writ large. A colonial era, Mahogany table, with its leaves akimbo, is covered in one hundred and nineteen, hand-carved, severed heads. This collection of heads have been gathered from a variety of places including thrift stores and junk shops. Cave is a serial collector. He curates bits of Americana into his works as an added layer about American values and obsessions. It speaks to the phenomenological fascination with collecting people (or parts of people) as commodities or objects. Shifting between an oversized plantation desk and a dining table, the table is a platform of curiosity and consumption. Few heads stand upright, but one rises through the melee. There is a hint of a shadow of a smile playing across the polished ebony spread of his face. His expression is a direct contrast to the eagle that silently screeches into his face. This single Black figure is a simple gesture of hope, perseverance, and resilience.
Unarmed (2018), is the visual realization of twenty-first century America. This is an America where one can be killed simply for being Black. From 1619 to 2020, the saga of unjustified murder of Black people in America continues. Driving while Black; Running while Black; Walking while Black; Living in your own home while Black; Sleeping while Black; Living while Black; are all things that can get you killed by police in America. A Black hand, almost caressed, but not fully enveloped in an undying wreath of beaded vintage foliage, reaches up to the sky. The sole finger points as though ready to pull the trigger, points to God, reaches toward heaven, asks us to stop. And consider. Its final gesture before the inevitable collapse to the hard ground. The forearm, which is a cast of the artist's own arm, is the point at the end of the sentence: one does not need to see the rest of the line to understand the unseen violence captured in the moment. It is enough to see the disembodied gesture, shrouded by the delicate crafted broken circle, to know what happened.
Platform is the graveyard of our collective memory. Black-bronze gramophone trumpets in varying sizes lay omnidirectionally across the floor, like perverted umbrellas turned inside out. Their handles are taught arms, again castes of the artists own body, rising in the sign of Black power. An eerie and deafening silence emanates from these biomorphic forms, and it reflects the permanent scream bursting forth from a bodiless head that lies entangled in a chain of linked hands. This head, like the one lying in repose on a pillow, are multiple casts of the artist’s head, adjacent to metamorphosized casts of the artist’s hands. Are these hands leading us to salvation, or delivering us into the fray? Another disconnected head lies gently on a pillow, a sandalwood colored eagle (one of several) perched upon its cheek. Is it the same head that appears atop the shotgun shell flag? It exists in a state of ambiguity. Is this the mask of sleep or death? Has this bird come to feed on the labor of Black people, or has it come to protect its citizens?
As with most of Nick Cave’s work, the meaning is multifold, complex, and utterly undefinable. Though monolithic in scale, his sculptures are never singular in their meaning.
Nick Cave’s Soundsuits are some of his most iconic and recognizable works. They are joyful, celebratory, powerful and empowering, brilliant, effervescent. They are what we need in a moment where our plinth bound memorials are monuments to monolithic and incomplete/inaccurate histories. As monumental beings, they are anything but monoliths. They are complex and non-binary in their essence – literally shapeshifting from a static form to a moveable, protective skin. This Soundsuit, which Cave refers to as a 2.0, is an evolution for the artist. The piece seen here is a supersized sculpture that towers as a beacon of protection. Like earlier Soundsuits, this colossus celebrates race, and calls together community. Incorporating vintage floral toile and ceramic bird figurines that envelope the body in a protective aura of history, memory, honesty, and rebirth, the monumental human-based forms are firmly rooted in the earth, growing from the soil. In addition to this celebratory sentiment, this Soundsuit also emulates a melancholic solemnity. It functions as a sentry that has the ability to act as a shroud for those it must keep safe. In this way, it is both a funerary apparatus and a protector.
As the final piece in As It Was and Still Is, this Soundsuit is the antidote to a continuously reopened wound. It presents us with the opportunity to hope for a future where Black Lives genuinely matter. It inspires us to fight on against the tyranny and oppression. It is our salve against stasis.
All text was written by Jasmine Wahi, Holly Block Social Justice Curator, The Bronx Museum