A mandala made of birds

Sharif Bey, Ornithological Excavation #2 (detail), 2020–2021, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Collection of Section of Ornithology

Sharif Bey: Excavations

Gallery One

“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.”

Sharif Bey

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.

Go behind the scenes with artist Sharif Bey as he discusses the inspirations behind his first solo exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, Sharif Bey: Excavations, on view through March 6, 2022.

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.


The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication, slated for release in early 2022, which explores three of the artist’s driving questions: what makes one believe they can become an artist, how does what I do connect to who I am, and how can I fulfill a social responsibility to my community? These questions are addressed through a series of autobiographical “excavations” written by Bey to highlight seminal places, peoples, and experiences in his artistic journey. The publication includes an essay by James Stewart, Penn State Emeritus professor of African American studies, an introduction by Rachel Delphia, and archival material from the museum’s records curated by Alyssa Velazquez. The book will be designed in-house by Carnegie Museum of Art Design & Publications studio and complements and extends the exhibition themes.


A series of events and programs will accompany Carnegie Museum of Art’s presentation of Sharif Bey: Excavations. The exhibition opens to the public with an artist’s talk, In Conversation: Sharif Bey at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 2, 2021 in the museum’s theater. Conversations throughout the fall will feature a combination of scholars, artists, and activists expanding on the exhibition context, themes, and materials. Additional learning resources will be provided in conjunction with workshops for K-12 public school students and educators. Unless otherwise noted, Carnegie Museum of Art events are pay what you wish with registration.

Exhibition Images

An artwork made of nails and clay.
A ceramic vessel
a ceramic artwork consisting of a wreath around a face


Carnegie Museum of Art would like to thank Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Pittsburgh Glass Center for their partnership in planning, production, and programming for this exhibition.


Sharif Bey: Excavations is made possible by The Bessie F. Anathan Charitable Trust of the Pittsburgh Foundation at the request of Ellen Lehman and Charles Kennel, Arts, Equity, & Education Fund, Dawn and Christopher Fleischner, Brian Wongchaowart, the Ruth Levine Memorial Fund, and The Fellows of Carnegie Museum of Art. Additional publication support is provided by Albertz Benda and Friedman Benda.

Carnegie Museum of Art is supported by The Heinz Endowments and Allegheny Regional Asset District. Carnegie Museum of Art receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Arts, Equity, & Education Fund (AE&E Fund) promotes community engagement, expands opportunities for the historically underfunded, and highlights a diversity of voices in the arts. Through underwriting exhibitions such as Sharif Bey: Excavations, AE&E Fund supports opportunities upon which contemporary artists can build their careers. AE&E Fund is proud to join Rachel Delphia, Alyssa Velazquez, and the Carnegie Museum of Art team with Sharif Bey: Excavations.

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