Sharif Bey’s broken and beautiful ceramic figures

TORONTO – Clay as a medium is often considered fixed once it has been burned. but Colonial Fracturesa group of works by ceramic artist Sharif Bey, on view at the Gardiner Museum, not only weaves together cultural and familial themes, but also examines, shatters and integrates older works to create layers of change in form and meaning.

“It speaks of the industrial past,” said chief curator Sequoia Miller during a tour of the exhibition. Bey was born into a multigenerational family of boilermakers—industrial welders who make boilers—and currently lives and teaches in Syracuse, New York. For more than a century, the city was also home to Syracuse China; Founded in 1871, the company was one of the last indigenous fine china manufacturers in the country when it closed in 2009. The works in Colonial Fractures clearly refer to the nkisi Traditions of the cultures of West-Central Africa, but the nails, scrap metal and potsherds bristling with Bey’s figures salvage Syracuse’s industrial waste as well as the equipment of his family profession.

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Sharif Bey, “Boilermaker: Shinkie” (2021), earthenware and mixed media, 13 × 10 × 9 in

According to Miller, boilermaking was among the only “fairly stable and relatively lucrative” careers open to young African-American men well into the 1960s. “It was one of the few ways that African-American families got into the middle class. [Bey is] to reflect on his connection of this whole line of work, production, middle-class identity and connecting it to African-American identity, [to] Access to African cultural resources.”

The works a Colonial Fractures are based on vessel forms – mostly bottles or pots – but many of these incorporate parts of older figurative sculptures, creating a patchwork of faces, limbs or sometimes entire figures perched on bottle caps. These are framed by manes and haloes made from old nails and pierced with potsherds sometimes salvaged from waste collected from the abandoned factory in Syracuse China. The presentation, which includes a cross section of works from several series, including boilermaker (2021) and choir singers (2020) is a pantheon of broken and beautiful figures.

Sharif Bey, “Choir Singer Series: TJ” (2020), earthenware and mixed media, 21 x 10 x 10 in

Many of these works are undated on Bey’s website, perhaps because it is difficult to agree on a single date of origin. By reusing old pieces, he not only integrates his own history, but conceptually suggests a break in time. The Ghanaian term of sankofa (“go back and get it”), which encourages learning from the past or reclaiming it to navigate the future, resonates positively Colonial Fracturesthereby tearing apart any notion of predictability or linearity in the production of these works and compressing the Venn diagram of art and artifact into a perfect circle.

Sharif Bey, “Blugi” (undated), earthenware and mixed media, 5 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 5 in
Sharif Bey, “Lion Bird II (Alpha)” (2016), earthenware and mixed media, 7 x 7 x 8 in
Sharif Bey, “Nazarite Series #2” (undated), earthenware and mixed media, 25 x 15 x 11 in

Sharif Bey: Colonial Fractures continues through August 28 at the Gardiner Museum (111 Queen’s Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada). The exhibition was curated by Sequoia Miller.

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