An exhibition of more than 100 autobiographical, religious, and political wood carvings by self-taught artist Elijah Pierce, the son of a formerly enslaved couple born in Mississippi in 1892, will be mounted at the Barnes Foundation beginning in September.

The Barnes plans to reopen on July 25 after a protracted coronavirus-induced closure, and this major retrospective will be the first new special exhibition to open after it welcomes visitors back. (The interrupted exhibition Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread From Miro to Man Ray will be on view through Aug. 23.)

“Elijah Pierce’s America,” on view from Sept. 27 through Jan. 10, represents the first major retrospective of Pierce’s work to be presented outside his home city of Columbus, Ohio, for more than 25 years. After the Great Migration, Pierce settled in Columbus in 1924, where he preached and cut hair, eventually presiding over his own barbershop, which was a social hub and a studio. He died in 1984.

Elijah Pierce, Slavery Time, c. 1965-70, paint, glitter, and pearl on carved wood
Cincinnati Art Museum
Elijah Pierce, Slavery Time, c. 1965-70, paint, glitter, and pearl on carved wood

Thom Collins, president and executive director of the Barnes, said that Albert C. Barnes, the collector who established the foundation nearly 100 years ago to showcase his collection of paintings and sculpture, was well known as an “advocate for the civil rights of African Americans, women, and the economically marginalized.”

In that context, it is no surprise that Barnes collected the work of Horace Pippin, an African American artist in West Chester who was also self-taught.

“In Elijah Pierce’s America, we are looking at Pierce as the artist he was — not as a ‘folk’ or ‘outsider’ artist simply because he was self-taught,” says Zoé Whitley, cocurator of the exhibition with Nancy Ireson, the Barnes curator and deputy director for collections and exhibitions.

Ireson said that Barnes championed artists “regardless of their training.”

Whitley continued: “One of our goals with this exhibition is to raise key questions about the writing of art history: Are self-taught artists automatically considered ‘outsider’ even if they were denied formal education by circumstance and social status? Within the history of early 20th-century art, how can we begin to recontextualize the contributions and innovations of self-taught artists?

“Through his wood carvings, Pierce not only succeeded in telling a personal history alongside the history of African American people,” said Whitley, director of Chisenhale Gallery in London, “but also revealed a dynamic visual history of the United States.”

Elijah Pierce, Watergate, c. 1975, paint and glitter on carved wood
Columbus Museum of Art
Elijah Pierce, Watergate, c. 1975, paint and glitter on carved wood

The exhibition will include Pierce’s well known work, The Book of Wood (1932), which consists of seven large biblical scenes in relief. Also included will be works inspired by Pierce’s life as a preacher, allegorical works featuring animals, and works on popular culture and politics — including Pierce’s take on Watergate.

The Barnes will be the only exhibition venue for this show.