Cherif Bey spent his childhood thinking that all museums combined art and natural history, as they do in Carnegie Art and Natural History Museums. While he may have learned this was not true, his own ceramic and glass artwork is influenced by dinosaur bones and the colors of birds.
The same artwork that was influenced by the Carnegie Museum of Art is now featured in an exhibition titled “Sharif Bey – Excavations”. The exhibit opened on October 2 and is one of the museum’s rotating exhibits. It will run until March 6, 2022.
Rachel delphia, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, said Bey’s close relationship with the museum as a child was what really brought the project to life.
“His career is booming and he is a Pittsburgh-born artist with a specific relationship with our museum in his youth,” said Delphia. “We were delighted to bring him back to his hometown museum this way.”
Delphia said the idea of showing Bey’s work at the museum has been in the works for years, dating back to 2018, when she first encountered her work at a local glass exhibition in Pittsburgh. But the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new setbacks, such as museum closures, and it took a long time for the exhibit to finally be over and open to the public.
“I realized throughout the approval process how much the art museum and the natural history museum had also meant to him as a youngster,” said Delphia. “That’s when we really started to think about what more we could do together.”
Some of the works of art presented in the exhibition include ceramic works of art and sculptures made using mixed media. Specific works include mask-like shapes and necklaces made from pinch-style vessels like pearls.
Noah Gustafson, a sophomore English student at Community College of Allegheny County, visited the museum during a visit to the Pitt campus. He was most interested in the intricacies of Bey’s work. He had spent some time examining the different materials of the artwork, noting what he described as the strangeness of some of the works.
“I love exhibits like this that tell you just enough for you to understand what you’re looking at, like it’s glass or ceramics,” Gustafson said. “But the rest is something you have to figure out for yourself.”
As an associate professor of art at Syracuse University, Sharif also has ties to museums in New York City. James Zemaitis, director of museum relations at R & Company Museum in New York, was already familiar with Bey’s work before having the chance to visit the exhibition in Pittsburgh.
According to Zemaitis, he travels to Pittsburgh every year to meet people at the Carnegie Museums and had the benefit of seeing the new exhibits on his trip this fall. It was even more exciting for him due to his familiarity with Bey’s work.
“I’ve known about his work since we included him in a big exhibition we had in our gallery earlier this year,” Zemaitis said. “I found the exhibition to be spectacular.
The enthusiasm for Bey’s run to the museum is influenced by his ties to Pittsburgh. Zemaitis said he wished this particular feature of the artwork could travel to other museums, but recognized the special nature of the exhibition’s ties to Bey’s past.
“I wish he could travel to other museums, but on the other hand, it’s such a personal ode to his experience with Pittsburgh,” Zemaitis said. “It seems fitting that as an art lover you actually have to travel to see it.”
The exhibit showcases the many identities Bey had throughout her life, including growing up in a black neighborhood. Zemaitis said it was incredibly relevant to present Bey’s works at this time, as they highlight cultural aspects of her past and the history of Pittsburgh.
“It’s really amazing to learn about the culture of your neighborhood and all of your experiences growing up in a black community in Pittsburgh,” Zemaitis said.
With such a long history behind Bey’s life and her work, Delphia said there is a lot to see when museum visitors visit the exhibit.
“It’s wonderful work, it’s powerful work, and I think it’s very personal work.” said Delphie. “There is a lot to think about and a lot to take away from it. “
Gustafson said he thought back to a school trip he took to the Carnegie Museum in elementary school when he discovered Bey’s childhood memories of the museum.
“I remember thinking about how I wanted to make art that would someday be in a museum,” Gustafson said. “It just makes you a little nostalgic for this artist, that he grew up here and now he can come here and say it’s his work in these walls now.”
Bey grew up in a black Muslim family and her family was the only Muslim family in her community. Delphia said Bey’s work has always been rooted in the exploration of identity, and it really shows in this collection of works.
“All of her different identities are intertwined in her work,” said Delphia. “I think it’s important that we share this at a time when more people are aware of considering these multi-faceted identities.”
Gustafson said he plans to return over the holidays with his family to see what they are doing with the exhibition as a whole and specific works by Bey.
“That’s what’s so cool about these kinds of exhibits in art museums,” Gustafson said. “You might think you’ve got it all figured out and seen it all, but someone else points out something and you see it in a whole different way.”