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Sharif Bey on the Campbell Conversations

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On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with artist and educator Sharif Bey. He has a new 30 year retrospective exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse called, "Facets" on display through August 14.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher:  Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is the Syracuse based artist, activist and educator Sharif Bey. Since May, he's had a 20 year retrospective show of his work at the Everson Museum titled, “Facets”. Mr. Bey has won numerous awards for his work and his work can be found in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., among other locations. He's also a professor and arts education and teaching and leadership in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and its School of Education. Professor Bey, welcome to the program.

Sharif Bey: Thank you. It's great to be here.

GR: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. So first of all, rather than me describing it, why don't you start by telling our listeners a little bit about the mediums that you use and what you've tried to express and or perhaps represent through your artwork?

SB: Well, a mid-career retrospective. And by the way, it actually goes back to 91. So it's even more than 20 years.

GR: Okay, 30, yeah.

SB: Yeah. It's a 30 year retrospective. It tells a pretty long story. So to try to encapsulate all that work in just a sentence or two, I would probably want to talk about one of the central themes of the exhibition, which is primarily about my kind of early or earliest fascinations with the potter’s wheel. I started out working on a potter's wheel when I was 15 years old, and shortly thereafter I was working in a program called the Manchester Craftsman's Guild in Pittsburgh, and they had an amazing national Visiting Artists program. And at a very, very early age, I got to see contemporary ceramic artists, many of whom were college professors themselves, you know, brought their stories by way of a Thursday evening lecture or Friday afternoon workshop as well as an exhibition and a hands on collaborative experience with many of the high school students. So I got to see lots of trajectories, and I got hooked on the wheel and that kind of became my kind of like my home away from home, working on the wheel at the center and kept me out of trouble and kept me focused and eventually took me for a, a 30 year ride. I mean, talking about three college degrees without a penny out of my own pocket, took me around the world many times over. And it started with my commitment to that aspect of the craft. So the exhibition focuses on, you know, some really modest cookie jars and tea pots, and it talks about how that frames the exhibition because the sculptures in the exhibition, some of which are over five foot tall, are also, you know, in many ways honoring or reflecting on my formative education as a potter. So there are lots of things I learned from pottery that transformed or transferred into my education as a sculptor in art school, later pursuing my masters and again, studying in different parts of the world. So one primary theme is certainly the vessel and not just the vessel ergonomically and spatially, but also the vessel as a metaphor. And that's something also that translates into, you know, other works, even the works on the wall or made from volumetric objects that I consider to be vessels in their own right. And of course, the surfaces as well. And some of the language that I learned from you know, more ornate pottery later translates into the sculpture. So I like to myself, to a sculptor who looks to the traditions of pottery where we have a lot of potters who say, I like the forms and the lexicons of forms that stem from sculpture. I kind of look at it the other way around.

GR: Yeah I want to ask you about one of those sculptures and a little bit, but I'll just say now to the objects on the wall are just simply beautiful.

SB:  Thank you.

GR: You say that you were raised in, and I'm quoting here from something that I read about you earlier, an anti-imperialist household. Tell me what that means to you and how it impacted your work.

SB: Well, I mean, I think that when I was a kid, I was raised with an acute awareness that there was a missing narrative in media. So we turn on the television and, you know, when I was a kid, I mean, I'm nearly 50 years old and I'm considered to have an old soul because I have a brother who's 20 years older than me. My parents had, you know, 12 children. So, and I'm one of the younger ones, so I had the benefit of the visual culture of decades earlier than my own. And I would see, you know, Tarzan and Tonto and in Liz Taylor is as Cleopatra and Christopher Reeves as Superman. And, and I was, you know, essentially taught that there was some skewered historical representations and there was a missing narrative. And I was taught that there is a multiplicity of beauty in the world. It's not represented in our in our American media. And I was essentially raised to kind of seek alternatives and to question the representation of the protagonists or the happily ever after story, you know, who's missing in these stories? And it varies across the board. So, you know, and also alternative media. You know, I had an uncle who was an avid listener to shortwave radios when I was a kid. So he always had alternative media, alternative news stories. So for me, you know, I realized that, well, first of all, from a you know, emerging political identity that was important to understand that you know, maybe not everything you're being fed is good for you or true, but also from a creative point of view, you know, because I was I was taught that there were gaps, but we didn't always have the answers either. So it's missing in this story. And we were literally not allowed to play with white dolls as kids. You know, they were considered to be kind of the antithesis of self-hate when you're when you're playing with characters who don't reflect you in any way, you know, what is the psychodynamic, you know, damage of that. And studies have later proven that. And my parents were, and my grandparents were on the cusp of that. They knew that, you know, maybe it was a problem if there weren't any brown dolls, maybe you shouldn't play with any dolls if that was the only option. And all the heroes had blond hair and blue eyes and there weren't any heroes that that looked like me or they weren't any brown heroes. So anyway, what started to happen is my brother and I would oftentimes you know, make our own stories. Well, if you can't tell the story of Star Wars without Luke, right? So who do you sub for Luke? So we would do that. We couldn't buy Luke, so we would sub for Luke. And as a result of those kinds of omissions and compensations, we’d create our own stories and that's a beautiful thing.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Syracuse based artist and educator Sharif Bey, who has a major show currently running at the Everson Museum titled, “Facets”. So I was curious, as you put together this, well, 30 year retrospective and obviously it gave you an occasion I suppose, to reflect back on your work and its trajectory. Were there things about your path as an artist that were revealed to you in this process that maybe you weren't as aware of before when you sort of saw it all there in front of you and thought about it in those terms?

SB: It was emotional, it was heartfelt, it was overwhelming. It was literally, there are over 100 pieces in this exhibition spanning 30 years. So it was like a reunion of old friends. But also when you make objects, you know, they serve as placeholders and momentums and souvenirs. And, you know, what was really overwhelming and emotional about it is I think about the people who are affiliated with the times in which I made those objects, and also the programs that were designed to support kids like me. And the sad thing is that, you know, many of those mentors and teachers have passed on. And the really unfortunate thing that occurs to me is a lot of those kinds of programs don't exist anymore for young people. And as an educator I've come to learn how difficult it is and how cost prohibitive and logistically prohibitive it is to put together something like a school bus field trip for kids anymore. So one of the things that was revealed to me was how lucky I was as a kid to benefit from the kinds of programs that I did in the 80’s. I mean, I've gone to countless pre college programs, museum programs, summer camps. I mean, I went away. Once I kind of found out this is what I wanted to do, I was smart enough to know that all I had to do is ask the people who I admired how to get where they are. You know, that's something a question that young people, they can feel like maybe they have their own way of cracking the code, you know, with social media and going viral and this, that and the other. But when I was a kid, there were lots of people I admired and people who achieved things that I wanted to achieve. And I simply asked them, how do I get there? And they said they said, okay, work hard and go to college and then get your masters and build your studio. I said, oh, I'll do those things. I guess we're all kind of given that roadmap, we don't always read it, but I was lucky or smart or blessed, you can call it whatever. But that's basically what I did. I had a lot of people I admired and they were putting bricks down and I was I was stepping right onto those papers.

GR: Now, I did want to ask you about one of your works in particular. Many, many of the works in the exhibition, I found really quite, quite arresting. And there's one in particular that I have to say has haunted me in a good way. And it's one of your figures that, and I'm just going to describe it very basically, so I apologize if I'm not doing justice to it. But it's one of your figures and it's riddled with nails and it's got on its body many heads which look to me anyway, as if they might be in distress in some way. Could you tell me about that particular work? That's the one that has stayed most with me.

SB: You're talking about the piece that’s titled, “Soul Collector”. One of the challenges with works that stem from different cultural historical orientations is that we kind of take them, we interpret them from a very specific point of view that sometimes has, you know, baggage. We see this and we assume this and we interpret it as such. But there is a specific kind of visual culture stemming from West African sculpture, and that is very much of interest to me. I'm also interested in the very thing we're talking about. I'm interested in object as fetish and I'm interested in kind of playing with Western conjecture and playing with how we respond to the spoils of colonization. So I play on that. I've talked about my interest. That's kind of the second pillar of, a thematic pillar of this exhibition. I talked about pottery, the second thing is my interest in West African sculpture, but also my interest in the decontextualized colonial object, post-colonial objects. So those objects are specifically responding to West African in nkisi Kongo power figures. And the tradition of those figures is about them being impaled objects. And the thing that's interesting to me is a lot of times people imagine them or think of them as being like, I guess when they're made they are impaled. But we see the aftermath. We don't see the verb, we see the noun of art in this case, right? We see the hundred works that I made, you don't see me making them, you don't know we’re thinking, you don't know what they're stemming from those cases. But I think of these things in some cases as things that are protruding from them as opposed to things that are coming into them. So, you know, we don't look at a porcupine and say, oh, that must hurt, right? It's kind of intrinsic to what it is. So I kind of play on that, but in the case of this object, the soul collector, I don't particularly think of it as being anguished. Sometimes I think of the nails as ornamental, much like some of these graffitos or patterns in some of the other works. I think of the, you know, while I'm looking at the history of nkondos or the nkisi figures, rather, as ceremonial objects that have a specific purpose, that are about affirming oaths or they're power figures or figures of protection, you know, there is a specific meaning in that cultural context. What it means to impel an object with a nail, but also start to think about the repetition of these nails in some of these West African sculptures and how beautiful they are even out of their cultural or ceremonial contexts. And those particular pieces in the show are responding to that. And the heads are literally that. My niece actually is five years old and she came to this show on like a family day, and it's just so interesting how we respond from different perspectives. And she says, “Uncle Sharif why did you put the babies on spikes?” (laughter) So there's these, you know, she's thinking I'm a tormentor as well, right? But, you know, there's something very, you know, dreamlike about these kind of heads that are kind of levitating on there. But I'm thinking of it as a keeper of spirits and not like a torturer or monstrous figure.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Sharif Bay. He's a Syracuse based artist and educator, and currently he has a major retrospective exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art, and it's titled, “Facets”. Now, Sharif, that as you well know, the Everson is known for ceramics. I was just curious if that played any role, either in your physical relocation to Syracuse, your decision to come here and live and be at Syracuse University, or was that just serendipity?

SB: A little bit of both actually, it's really interesting. I talked about me being, you know, a young kid who sought out people who were achieving what I wanted to achieve. And I essentially established a network at a pretty early age. And many of the people in my network were college professors. One of whom is David MacDonald. And David MacDonald taught at Syracuse University from 1971 to, I want to say 2007. At this time you know in my mind from Pittsburgh and not doing a whole lot of research on Syracuse, I knew about the Everson, and I knew about Syracuse basketball. I just thought Syracuse was a school for rich kids and a school I couldn't get into, so I didn't even bother applying to school here, although I did want to study with David MacDonald. But Syracuse was on my radar just because he was here and I knew about the Everson, but there was a lot of trepidation about the possibility of me being successful here. So I passed up Syracuse not thinking I could get in as an undergrad student and definitely not as a grad student. I think the application was even a little bit cost prohibitive for me. But nonetheless, it kept Syracuse on the radar for me. And I kept in touch with David MacDonald, I mean since I was 15 years old.

GR: And now you're on the faculty, so I love the way that that ended. I'm just curious whether living in Syracuse has influenced your more recent work in any ways that you could identify.

SB: In a very interesting way. And this is not so content driven, but one of the things that kind of circumstantially, you talk about serendipity at its best, I came to Syracuse, and there's a correction I need to add is I'm no longer on the faculty of the School of Education as of January this year.

GR: Okay, just, just VPA then.

SB: Yeah, But I came here primarily as an art educator, and in the conventional sense, in most schools that means you're the person with the clipboard and a tie and you publish or perish and you're editing and that know, maybe supervising teachers in the schools. But it's an academic appointment. And I was uniquely appointed here, and this is one of the things that brought me here, is I was given an opportunity to be dually appointed to do, “and / or”. I was very much supported back then, especially under the support of Doug Biklen, who was then Dean of School of Ed and very much an art enthusiast. So Doug kind of got me. And, you know, I really appreciated the fact that I was supported as a physical creator, although I had an academic appointment. But anyway, it took a while for me to kind of gain the acceptance that I sought among the visual arts faculty because I didn't really come here as an artist’s artist. So I was like writing and publishing and making these things in my basement that very few people knew about. And they later kind of started to gain national attention. And it became almost hard to ignore, you know, the impact I was having outside of Syracuse. And more and more, I started teaching ceramics and visual arts in Syracuse. But the serendipity I wanted to share is, I was I started to fire more and more of my work alternatively. And when I say that, I mean I burned a fireplace probably six months out of the year in Syracuse, so I started to use that as part of my practice. And I started to kind of do these short alternative firings in my fireplace. I lived on East Genesee Street when I first moved here. We converted our koi pond into an alternative kiln where I could fire outside. So these kind of, I would call them indigenous firing processes unfortunately, we refer to them as alternative firings in the contemporary ceramics world. But I do a lot of firing and a lot of kind of unconventional firing in my fireplace and in the koi pond. And it really came out of, well, it's so damn cold here. Why not?

GR: (laughter) Yeah, you're in a good place to burn a fireplace six months out of the year.

SB: It was just better to pay my thing.

GR: Yeah. If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is the artist Sharif Bey. I've got a political question for you now. For a variety of reasons, the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidency of Donald Trump, changing demographics in the United States, among others. The issue of identity and different identities has become more front and center, I think, in our political dialogues. And it's certainly I think one of the centerpieces of the dialogues going on in the Democratic Party for sure. Do you think that that has raised interest in your work, given some of the themes that it deals with? And is there something that you want your work to say to those political conversations?

SB: Hopefully, I can do justice to this in the time that we have.

GR: Yeah, I know. It's a big question.

SB: you should have lead with that Grant (laughter). I think that we're at a time now, I can remember a time in my life, I mean, I've been lecturing about my work for decades and that was a conversation I used to kind of abbreviate. And not because I wasn't proud of it, I just didn't think that there was a reception in having a more meaningful conversation about cultural or even political identity. And I think that now we're at a time where people are more inclined to unpack that. The indigenous communities are more verbal, African-American communities, communities from the African diaspora are more inclined to say, I'm going to own this history, and I want you to at least work to understand that I'm a product of this this history, this fragmented history. This history that stemmed a certain political motivation, what it is. And we're also in a time, even the work that I was making the more ornate work, it's a little bit, I'll say, safer. You know, I'm talking about decorated cookie jars and things. It has a certain, quote unquote, “cultural flair”. And I know people who are making I don't want to trivialize anyone's work, but like, stylistically comparable work and they're selling like hotcakes. Work that I was struggling to move 25 years ago. People are, you know, with the support of social media and 50,000 followers and before the kiln even cools it’s sold out. So there is a reception, you know, for kind of culturally visible work. I have works that are much more charged, you know, especially symbolically like one of the pieces in the show, the Everson purchased a couple of years ago is one from my Protest Shield series. So I'm specifically responding to the things that you just kind of foreshadowed, responding to the riots, the Black Lives Matter movement, but also kind of harkening back to the symbolism of the black fist and integrating that into the kind of radial patterns that I'm kind of known for. So what is the relationship between me being a potter who became a sculptor, who's a student of the world history of art, who's living at the time in 2020 and then into the pandemic, you know, in all of these milestones. I mean, one of the things that the curator was mentioning, you know, this show spans Y2K, 911, a major recession. The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, you know and not to mention you know Tamir Rice, George Floyd, I can go on and on. But there's been some significant, kind of historically significant events that transpired in the last 30 years. Now I want to say one other thing, that in addition to that, we have what I you know, a friend of mine Paul Briggs refers to as the complete contemplative object. So sometimes I'm overtly responding and sometimes I'm taking refuge. Sometimes I'm into this kind of meditative dance that is somehow trying to find peace despite the turmoil outside the door. But nonetheless, it's embodied. So, a lot of the work was made since the pandemic that’s in that show. I mean, there's a lot of things from 2020 to now that are in that show and that are responding to the landscape that you described.

GR: We only have a couple of seconds left, literally, but I wanted to give you a chance at the end just to give a couple sentences on this. You've already spoken to it in a way, but do you have any specific and short advice for new artists at any age who are starting out?

SB: Well, my dream and hope is that people stay humble enough to listen. Ask questions, but focus on keen listening and don't be so pressured by becoming original. There are so many wonderful legacies and traditions to be a part of while you work to figure out who you are, honor those histories by making.

GR: That was Sharif Bey and his exhibition titled, “Facets”, runs at the Everson Museum until August 14th. Sharif, this has been fascinating, and I want to thank you not only for your work, but for taking the time to talk with me.

SB: Thanks for having me, Grant. It's been great.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO, public media conversations in the Public Interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.