If someone did not know anything Shari Bey or the background behind their art, they would very likely think they were from a physical excavation.
“Sharif Bey: Excavations” ran at the Carnegie Museum of Art from October 2 of last year until March 6.
The exhibition opened to the public with an artist’s talk called “In Conversation: Sharif Bey,” which took place on Saturday, October 2, 2021, at 1 p.m. (A recording of the artist’s talk can be found on the Carnegie Museum of Art SoundCloud profile.)
Bey is a Pittsburgh native and an Associate Professor of Art at Syracuse University with experience in ceramics, sculpture, community art programming, and art teacher training.
Bey has set up solo exhibitions in the past and has been a part of numerous group exhibitions as well. He is also featured in multiple public collections in museums all over the nation.
This exhibition is inspired by Bey’s experience of the Carnegie museum as a child and his reflections on it as an adult. His artwork is described as investigating “the cultural and political significance of adornment and the symbolic and formal properties of archetypal motifs, while questioning how the meaning of icons and function transform across cultures and time.”
Bey’s art sculptures and figurines in this exhibition look like ancient artifacts, maybe objects dug up from an archaeological site in Africa. His art possesses many qualities of African art, such as a focus on the human face and figure, hand carvings, and visual abstraction. In a press release for this exhibition, Bey’s artistic influences are stated to range from modernism, functional pottery, Oceanic Art, and Art of the African diaspora.
In reality, Bey’s works truly are artifacts in many aspects. His pieces act as artifacts of his past that he has also shaped by his present and his conceptions of his future. He “excavated” or extracted them from his memories, found objects of his past artwork, and his interactions with people and spaces.
Bey considers the found objects to contain vestiges of his past, that which he wants to give new life. During the artist’s talk, he reveals that the process of finding objects from his previous works becomes “a generative site of looking back and investigating those vestiges and seeing what’s present.”
During the artist’s talk, Bey discussed his artistic process, how his new work engaged both his past and present selves, and his process of recovering and unearthing sources of inspiration in-depth. He was joined in conversation with Rachel Delphia, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art.
In detailing his early experiences of the museum, Bey explained how one of the first ideas he responded to as a child “is having the freedom to engage works of art at my own pace.”
When he was nine years old, he was nominated by his art teacher Mary Ann Miller at Beltzhoover elementary school to join a Saturday Art program run by the museum. When Bey had free time in-between instruction, he would use it to go back and see things the group passed through or things he wanted to spend more time looking at. Bey had been particularly interested in the Nkisi nkondi (power figure) c. 1875 that used to be on display at the museum, which he revisited for many years afterward and eventually became a significant source of artistic inspiration.
In the exhibition, there are sculptures of abstract human figures in ebony and copper brown colors. Small enough to fit on a table, these sculptures vary a lot in size and shape. One of the biggest figures has four legs with a thick middle section supporting a head that is barely recognizable as human, if not for its human-like ears, nose, and mouth. While one of the smallest sculptures has a short stub for a body and a human face that looks closer to a real one, save for the tip of its head that extends and curves behind itself. Many of these sculptures are made of earthenware, nails, and mixed media. One of his pieces, Dippermouth (2019), is dissimilar from other sculptures in this exhibition in that the outer ring of the sculpture is covered with nails that protrude at different lengths. In the past, Bey created several sculptures similar in appearance to Dippermouth, such as the sculptures in his Star Child Series.
His spiral-shaped necklace sculptures that hung on the walls of the exhibition appear to the eye to be made of individual animal bones or ancient, colored African beads. But, his necklace sculptures are in fact made from earthenware, vitreous china, mixed media, and glass. The necklace sculptures were intended to mimic pinch-pot style vessels like beads that draw on forms found in the natural world like tusks or dinosaur vertebrae. His mask sculptures each have unique face shapes and intricate backgrounds comprised of various mixed media or industrial porcelain shards, such as his Sleeping Giant #1 (2017) mask sculpture. Sleeping Giant #1 has an oval-shaped face mask that is surrounded by red and white shards that look as if they were haphazardly stabbed into the frame of the sculpture.
Bey studied sculpture at The Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia, “shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union,” as stated by the artist in his short biographical profile. Afterward, he studied at Slippery Rock University in PA where he earned his BFA in Ceramics, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he earned his MFA in Studio Art. Later, Bey earned a Ph.D. in Art Education from Penn State University.
Some of the accolades Bey has received are: The United States Artist Fellowship, The Pollock-Krasner Fellowship, The New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and The J. William Fulbright Scholarship.
A publication about the exhibition is expected to be released in 2022. The publication will delve into three of Bey’s driving questions: what makes one believe they can become an artist, how does what I do connect to who I am, and how can I fulfill a social responsibility to my community? Bey’s three questions will be answered in part by an autobiographical portion written by himself that focuses on influential figures, locations, and personal experiences that he encountered in his journey as an artist.
The publication will also consist of an essay by James Stewarts (a Penn State Emeritus professor of African American studies), an introduction written by Delphia, and archival material from the museum’s record curated by Alyssa Velazquez. Additionally, the Carnegie Museum of Art Design & Publications studio will design the book in-house, in a way that will enhance and further the themes of Bey’s exhibition.
Bey has two upcoming exhibitions outside of Pittsburgh: (2022) Sharif Bey: Facets, Everson Museum, in Syracuse, NY, and (2022) Sharif Bey, Gardiner Museum, in Toronto, Canada.
Sharif Bey: Excavations had been organized by Rachel Delphia (the Alan G., Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design), Alyssa Velazquez (Curatorial Assistant for Decorative Arts and Design), and Kiki Teshome (a Margaret Powell Curatorial Fellow)
The exhibition was supported by The Bessie F. Anathan Charitable Trust of the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Arts, Equity, & Education Fund (AE&E Fund)