Elijah Pierce (1892–1984) was born the youngest son of a former slave on a Mississippi farm. He began carving at an early age when his father gave him his first pocketknife, and throughout his life he honed his craft and created artworks that would eventually, in the 1970s, bring him national and then international fame. Elijah Pierce’s America seeks to revisit the artist’s oeuvre and see it in its own right, rather than as “naïve,” as it was known at the time.
Through his carvings, Pierce tells his own life story, but he also chronicles the African American experience. He made his living as a barber and was also a qualified preacher; just as his barbershop was a place for gossip and meeting, so his art reflects his own and his community’s concerns. His subjects ranged from politics to religion, but he seldom distinguished the race of his figures—he thought of them as everyman figures. His secular carvings show his love of baseball, boxing, comics, and movies, and reflect his appreciation for American heroes who fought for justice and liberty.
A critic summarized what Elijah Pierce’s America foregrounds in Pierce’s artwork: “He reduces what he wants to say to the simplest forms and compositions. They are decorative, direct, bold, and amusing. He uses glitter and all kinds of devices to make his message clear. It gives his work an immediacy that’s very appealing.” Accompanying a major exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Elijah Pierce’s America shines a light on the sophisticated work of an artist with a distinct and important voice.
About the Author
Nancy Ireson is deputy director for collections and exhibitions and Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
Zoé Whitley is director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London.
"A significant new contribution to the understanding of this artist." — Forbes
"It offers a near-complete portrayal of twentieth-century American history through the eyes of one man, the artist Elijah Pierce. That Pierce was a Black American makes his vision of the times he lived especially distinctive and powerful." — Philadelphia Free Press
"[Pierce's] wood carvings—elaborate, detailed, and painted—speak to American political and cultural history. . . . Previously presented in museums in the context of folk or self-taught art, this show and catalog reconsider his work in relation to mainstream art histories." — Culture Type, 15 Best Black Art Books of 2020
"While [Pierce's] art could encompass whimsical animals, religious themes and an unalloyed pride in America, much of it was steeped in slavery and the struggle for black emancipation. . . . There have been few moments in American history when themes of race have not been pressing, one of several reasons why Pierce's richly authored work retains such vivid, relatable and persuasive power." — World of Interiors
"Witness the celebration of a remarkable, self-taught woodcarver." — Wall Street Journal
"Vital, joyous, and important work." — Hyperallergic
"Provides a useful introduction to Pierce's works. . . . Well designed and richly illustrated with large, high-quality colour reproductions." — Burlington Magazine