“I was raised in an anti-imperialist household - that was the culture,” Sharif Bey explains, “a culture of asking, of questioning, of pushing back on the narratives that media has fed to us.” Over the past thirty years, Bey has channeled this impulse into his clay practice.
In Revelations in Power, on view at albertz benda from February 18 through March 27, 2021, Bey presents work from four ongoing series – Protest Shields, Power Figures, Necklaces, and Babel Staffs. Revelations in Power represents the artist’s first gallery exhibition in New York, following institutional acquisitions of works from these series by the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, TX; and preceding Bey’s major solo exhibition at Carnegie Museum in October 2021.
Investigating the symbolic and formal properties of archetypal motifs, Bey questions how the meaning of icons transform across cultures and time. In works from the Boilermaker series, Bey references the voluminous features and impaled surfaces of nkisi nkondi. These power figures, originally from the Congo region in West Africa, were used to affirm oaths and ward off evil. As a consequence of colonialism, these objects made their way into Western consciousness as looted artefacts. Through avenues such as early European Modernism, the figures were stripped of their original frames of reference and repurposed both for their aesthetic and perceived otherness, and for the then-shocking realization that cultural activity existed outside of the traditional Western canon.
Bey does not shy away from stereotypical associations. Instead, he reappropriates and recontextualizes this imagery to challenge the cultural mainstream. For example, in the Protest Shields, the artist incorporates ceremonial elements with crowns of raised fists – another symbol whose meaning has continually shifted, from workers’ movements of the early twentieth century, to the Black Power movement of nineteen sixties and seventies, to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
“What I’m really interested in, above all, is cultivating power,” says Bey. “How does power manifest? When I’m using pattern, or I’m using repetition, or I’m using the undulation of positive and negative space, or I’m using color – in every instance, the intention is to produce something that is in some way awe-striking.”