When I met Amir Bey at an exhibition curated by Matthew Day Jackson, we briefly discussed his recent sixth exhibition in Japan but not his permanent installation, The Procession of Folk #3, on the MTA #4 line at the Mount Eden Station in the Bronx. Commissioned in 2003 and executed in 2006, the twelve glass windows (on the platform and mezzanine) portray varied people with Japanese, African American, Turkish, and other heritages. “The windows are made of faceted glass, which is textured and more durable than stained glass, a sort of mosaic of thick chunks of colored glass,” the artist told me. “The Procession of Folk is an ongoing theme that I’ve devoted different works to, from stone carvings to bronzes… I see humanity as a procession, and I am part of that movement through my work.”
Many months later, I visit Mr. Bey’s studio on the sixth floor in a walk-up building on the Lower East Side. At about 16 x 14 feet, it’s so crammed that some art — masks and painted faces cast from life — is literally climbing the walls. “I did this bronze of Lester Bowie (Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame trumpet legend) from a live cast around 1982,” Bey recalled. Multi-hued masks of composer/musicians David Murray, Joseph Jarman, the master printmaker Bob Blackburn and many others crowd the walls. Art is variously layered and stacked in all areas, including the narrow entranceway. Luckily, Amir has a larger studio workshop in the Bronx where his bigger bronzes, carved work, and library reside.
Mr. Bey shows me a gold-toned acrylic on vinyl wearable mask of Barack Obama and a mask for an upcoming collaborative project with pianist/composer Rod Williams and artist Michael Kelly Williams; the flared, layered top looks like a beard or a crown depending on which way it is worn. Among Amir’s many collaborations with musicians, he worked with composer and alto saxophonist Saco Yasuma from 2005 through 2010. Mr. Bey designed the costumes and sets for their ensemble SYNERGY SIGHT AND SOUND. This 2008 video by Abop TV shows a performance at The Brecht Forum. It includes Ras Moshe Reeds; Dave Ross, Guitar; Christopher Dean Sullivan, Bass; Lou Grassi, Drums; and Saco Yasuma, reeds and compositions.
The studio is loaded with an array of medium-sized bronze, alabaster, wood, and African Wonderstone maquettes of expressive faces and public art projects. A black record with a red label catches my eye; as it spins easily, the paper maché surface undulates, activating the copper dancers on top. Under this sculpture is a carved alabaster turntable that also spins. Mr. Bey envisions this maquette as a playground ride children propel as they hop on to take a spin.
Several Wonderstone heads are a beautiful gray color, variously smooth and textured. Bey explains that this has to be carved in a larger, better ventilated space due to asbestos that the stone disperses when it is being worked, but that it’s safe once it’s finished. One ‘92 stone sculpture, the Happy Lands Dancers, also cast in bronze in 1993, memorializes the 87 Honduran party goers killed in a fire at the Happy Lands, an after-hours club. This bronze is a functioning fountain with water emerging from between the two central figures; smaller spouts in the shape of flowers represent each lost person. Another 1993 rounded Wonderstone and alabaster maquette with cryptic markings commemorates children killed by urban violence (guns).
One bronze with a pyramidal structure is The Equinox Celebration at the Pyharam (House of Pi). Bey’s word Pyharam refers to mathematicians’ discovery that pi was an important calculation used in building the Egyptian pyramids. The 36 figures are the artist’s interpretations of figures derived from the 36 ten-day weeks of the ancient Egyptian calendar (with five days at the end). This evolved into his tarot deck, The Equinox Celebration Tarot, which comes with an interpretive book.
As these projects demonstrate, Amir Bey’s art blends concepts from world cultures into art that celebrates music, community, and myths. He shows me a new kind of musical rattle – a Nemu, which is plural for pygmies in ancient Egyptian; each plywood or foam core man has a big belly made of a can with rattling objects inside. Amir tells me his Love Wand – silvered drumsticks from Newman Taylor Baker with brass bells contributed by reed-player/composer J. D. Paran inside its handle and a foot-long wild turkey feather on the other end – can fulfill wishes.
Amir began carving deer antlers, wood, and California jade during the period 1970-72 when he lived on two self-supporting communes — Black Bear Ranch, in a former 19th Century mining town in the northern California mountains, and another near Covelo, California. His website, The New Times Holler! – http://thenewtimesholler.com – intermixes astrology, Egyptology, satirical tales, interviews, book reviews, old and new news, and images. Mr. Bey doesn’t list his considerable professional accomplishments, exhibitions, and collectors. Instead, a “Gallery” shows some of Mr. Bey’s art and a “store” offers texts for $1 to $6 each. Mr. Bey says The Holler! is not entirely for self-promotion but is meant to be a satire on newspapers or to cover events and individuals that are hard to find in the media.
Comments welcome! Happy new year!
– Jan Castro (jancastro.com)