COLLECTION: Decorative Sculpture

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Bust of Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975)

ca. 1970
Origin: America, Georgia, Savannah
Overall: 9 1/4 x 4 x 3 3/8in. (23.5 x 10.2 x 8.6cm)
Stained and painted mahogany
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1992.701.1
Carved wood head and neck of clean-shaven African-American man wearing a bow tie and a fez with relief-carved crescent moon and star motif on front, and small relief-carved irregular circles arranged in three rows surrounding fez. Below neck is a base suggesting a torso. This base has a finely textured surface all over except for two pointed arch-like areas below the bow tie. Carved from a single block of wood which is stained red-brown, except for the relief-carved elements on the fez which are painted silver.
Label:Ulysses Davis was the second of eleven children born to Malachi and Mary Etta Davis of Fitzgerald, Georgia. Davis left school in the tenth grade to help support his family, working for the railroad. He moved to Savannah in 1942, was laid off from his job in the early 1950s, then opened a barbershop, which he operated for the remainder of his life. Davis carved several hundred wood sculptures depicting religious, patriotic, and erotic images, as well as subjects derived from traditional African sculpture.
This portrait is one of several works that reflect Davis's interest and faith in the civil rights movement. In Detroit in 1931, Elijah Poole (1897-1975) became one of the first converts to a nationalist religious organization called the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, later popularly called the Black Muslims. Discarding his "slave" surname for an Islamic one, Elijah Muhammad quickly rose in the ranks and, in 1934, assumed spiritual leadership of the group. Advocating racial separatism, economic independence, self-discipline, and hard work, Muhammad eventually created a sizable and impressively cohesive corps, one that gave many black Americans an unaccustomed taste of pride and solidarity.
News reports about Muhammad's activities may have stirred similar feelings in Davis. The artist is not known to have joined the Black Muslims, however, and likely it was Muhammad's celebrity---rather than his philosophy---that inspired Davis to depict him. For similar reasons, Davis also portrayed Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, the presidents, Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). (The last assumed racial and civil rights stances largely opposed o Muhammad's). All were figures who shaped American history.
Provenance:Ulysses Davis, Savannah, Ga.; James E. Allen, Atlanta, Ga.