“Sometimes young people have encounters that they cannot fully articulate. I must have been nine or ten years old when I first viewed the Nkisi nkondi figure. Of course, I had no knowledge of West African art at the time but for me it was more than a curious object. It had presence but also evoked mystery. It intrigued me. I reflected on who made it and how it was made. It became one of those objects that I would visit like an old friend for years to come.”
For artist and educator Sharif Bey (b. 1974), curiosity and critical inquiry are paramount. In his artistic process, Bey engages his past and present selves, a process he calls auto-archaeology. As an African American whose family history includes enslavement and displacement, Bey forges ancestral identities in his sculpture. He explores functional and ritual objects, arts of the African and Oceanic diasporas, and the materiality of clay, metal, wood, and glass. He rejoices in nature, power, and awesomeness, in its literal sense: that which inspires awe.
Sharif Bey: Excavations presents new works by Sharif Bey inspired by the artist’s ‘excavations’ of the museum collections that first piqued his interest as a youth visiting Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. On view are mask-like forms, necklaces made from pinch pot-style vessels as beads, and site-specific temporary installations that incorporate Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s broad collections of artifacts and specimens.
Born in Pittsburgh—where four generations of his family have lived and worked as boilermakers, teachers, and community leaders—Bey has frequented the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History since childhood. As a student in the Museum of Art’s Art Connection classes, he reveled in his unfettered access to collections. “As a kid,” he notes, “This was my museum. This was my reference for what museums were and could be. I thought all museums had art and natural history together.”
By returning to these spaces with the eye of a mature artist, Bey offers visitors a glimpse into the self-reflective nature of his artistic practice. Objects he encountered from West Africa such as a Guinean D’mba headdress and a Kongo Nkisi nkondi power figure continue to hold sway over his work in recent years. While Bey celebrates the themes of these objects, such as power, ritual, motherhood, community, and the awesomeness of nature, his work also touches on modern questions such as “Who has creative agency? Who gets to speak through an artistic platform?”
Sharif Bey: Excavations is organized by Rachel Delphia, Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, with Alyssa Velazquez, Curatorial Assistant for Decorative Arts and Design, and Kiki Teshome, Margaret Powell Curatorial Fellow.
About the Artist
Sharif Bey is an Associate Professor of Art at Syracuse University. Bey earned a B.F.A. in ceramics from Slippery Rock University, an M.F.A in studio art from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a Ph.D. in art education from Penn State University. He is a teaching artist with extensive experience in ceramics, sculpture, community art programming, and art teacher training. Dr. Bey has published numerous articles and served on the editorial board of Studies in Art Education and the Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education and is past editor of The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education.