“For years I have struggled with the challenge of producing works that were ornate, colorful and made with the utmost care yet suitable for the kitchen of inner city families. I felt an equal responsibility to the purpose my work served in the black community as well as the mainstream art/contemporary craft scene. The influence of my pots was never felt at the kitchen table to the extent that I hoped, but my current work seeks other alternatives of promoting thought and dialog. … This series of work combines my interest in African, Indian, Pre-Columbian, Native American, and Modernist sculpture while still applying the rigid functional criteria I acquired as a potter.” (This and the following quote are from Sharif Bey’s Artist’s Statement for his 2007 exhibit at HMA.)
In that same show Bey also exhibited some of his massive sculptural beads. “Using the beaded form as a visual metaphor (beads are the earliest form of human adornment and currency), my work asks us to consider material culture and questions of worth and value. In the past beads have been worn to celebrate African heritage and racial consciousness. The history of African beads and the values they promote contrast with those perpetuated by adornment in popular black youth culture today.”
Bey was interviewed about his early years in 2013. “I grew up on the Southside of Pittsburgh in a huge family (6 brothers and 5 sisters). I miss the old city when the trolleys carried us all over town. My father sometimes took me to bakeries, fruit stands, locksmiths and other small businesses in [many parts of Pittsburgh] where I observed such a diversity of people. Sadly these places no longer exist. [However,] the arts community in Pittsburgh was amazing in the 1980s. I benefited from it at an early age as I have been actively making objects since I was a child.”
In 1984 Bey enrolled as a high school freshman at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (mission: “to educate and inspire urban youth through the arts”); and for the next four years he received a thorough introduction to ceramic art through the Guild’s apprenticeship program. After graduating he went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and then, following a year out to study sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 2000 he earned a Masters Degree in Fine Art from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Around this time he also married, and he and his wife now have three children. (Below: in Slovakia in 2004, in his Syracuse University studio in 2007 and office in 2010, and at a Syracuse University student art show in 2014.)
In 2003, in conjunction with earning a doctorate in Art Education at Penn State University, Bey returned to Slovakia as a Visiting Artist on a Fullbright scholarship. He then taught as an assistant professor of Art Education at Winston Salem State University, before accepting dual positions of teaching and leadership at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and its School of Education.
In July 2010, Bey was a featured artist in an exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Sudan. At that time he noted that exaggerating the size of an intimate object like a necklace raises other questions. “What does it mean to wear beads of a provocative scale? And the weight of those beads, both physical and psychic, how does that affect the wearer?” He said that for him, they illustrate “the burden of sustaining tradition. As a metaphor, that’s what that weight is about.”
In recent years Bey has been an artist in residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, Hunter College in New York City, and the Vermont Studio Center among numerous other creative and teaching activities. He also takes time to enjoy his family and even to take a Skype cooking class in how to make Slovak apple pie (according to his Facebook page).
Works from the Museum's collection by artists who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement will be exhibited at HMA between February 6 and May 29, 2016 . Artists will include Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Sharif Bey, Juie Rattley III, Kara Walker and more. (Links connect to HMA blog posts about each artist.)
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.