Sharif Bey’s artwork featured at Carnegie Museum at Art


Romita Das | Senior Staff Photographer

Sharif Bey’s exhibit “Sharif Bey — Excavations” at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Oct. 11. The exhibit opened Oct. 2 and runs through March 6, 2022.

By Maria Scanga, Staff Writer

Sharif Bey spent his childhood thinking that all museums combined art and natural history together, like the way they do at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. While he may have learned this to not be true, his own ceramic and glass artwork boasts influences from dinosaur bones and the colors of birds.

The same artwork that has been influenced by the Carnegie Museum of Art is now featured in an exhibition called “Sharif Bey — Excavations.” The exhibition opened Oct. 2 and is part of the museum’s rotating exhibitions. It will run through March 6, 2022.

Rachel Delphia, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, said Bey’s close relationship with the museum during his childhood was what really brought the project to life. 

“His career has been ascending and he’s a Pittsburgh-born artist with a specific relationship to our museum in his youth,” Delphia said. “We were excited to bring him back to his hometown museum this way.”

Delphia said the idea to feature Bey’s work at the museum has been years in the making, going all the way back to 2018 when she had come across his work at a local Pittsburgh glass exhibition. But the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new setbacks, such as museum closures, and having the exhibit finally completed and open to the public has been a long time coming.

“I realized throughout the process of approving it how much the Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History, too, had meant to him as a young person,” Delphia said. “That’s when we really started really brainstorming what more we could do together.”

Some of the artwork featured in the exhibition includes ceramic art and sculptures made using mixed media. Specific works include mask-like forms and necklaces made from pinch-pot style vessels as beads.

Noah Gustafson, a sophomore English major at the Community College of Allegheny County, visited the museum during a visit to Pitt’s campus. He was most interested in the complexities of Bey’s work. He had spent some time examining the different materials in the artwork, noting what he described as the strangeness of some of the work.

“I like exhibits like this that tell you just enough for you to understand what you’re looking at, like this is glass or this is ceramic,” Gustafson said. “But the rest of it is something you have to figure out for yourself.”

As an associate professor of art at Syracuse University, Sharif has ties to museums in New York as well. James Zemaitis, the museum relations director at the R & Company Museum in New York, was already acquainted with Bey’s work before he had the chance to visit the exhibition in Pittsburgh.

According to Zemaitis, he travels to Pittsburgh each year to meet with people at the Carnegie Museums and had the bonus of seeing the new exhibitions during his trip this fall. It was even more exciting to him because of his familiarity with Bey’s work.

“I’ve been familiar with his work since we included him in a massive exhibition we had at our gallery earlier this year,” Zemaitis said. “I thought the exhibition was spectacular.” 

Enthusiasm over Bey’s run at the museum is influenced by the connections he has to Pittsburgh. Zemaitis said he wished this particular feature of artwork could travel to other museums, but recognized the special nature of the exhibit’s ties to Bey’s past.

“I wish it 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 appropriate that as an art enthusiast, you have to actually travel to see it.”

The exhibition features the many identities Bey has had throughout his life, including growing up in a Black neighborhood. Zemaitis said that it feels incredibly relevant to feature Bey’s artwork right now as it highlights the cultural aspects of his past and the history of Pittsburgh.

“It’s really amazing to learn about the culture of his neighborhood and all of his experiences growing up in a Black community in Pittsburgh,” Zemaitis said.

With such a long history behind both Bey’s life and his work, Delphia said there’s a lot to take in when museum-goers visit the exhibition.

“It’s beautiful work, it’s powerful work, and I think it’s very personal work.” Delphia said. “There’s a lot to reflect on and a lot to take away from it.”

Gustafson said he found himself thinking back to a class field trip he had taken to the Carnegie Museum in elementary school when he learned about Bey’s childhood memories of the museum.

“I remember thinking how I wanted to make art that would someday be in a museum,” Gustafson said. “It just makes you kind of nostalgic for this artist, that he grew up here and now he can come here and say that this is his work in these walls now.”

Bey grew up in a Black Muslim family, and his family was the only Muslim family in his community. Delphia said Bey’s work has always been rooted in explorations of identity, and that really shows in this collection of work.

“All of his different identities are knitted together in his work,” Delphia said. “I think it’s important that we’re sharing this at a moment when more people are aware of considering these multifaceted identities.”

Gustafson said he plans on returning during the holidays with family to see what they make of both the exhibit as a whole and Bey’s specific works.

“That’s what’s so cool about these kinds of exhibits at art museums,” Gustafson said. “You might think you figured it out and saw everything, but then someone else points something out and you see it a whole different way.”