Purvis Young. Battle, ca. 1990s. Mixed media on wood. 27 x 102 3/4 x 1 3/4 inches. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of Gordon W. Bailey. ©Larry T. Clemons/Gallery 721/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Purvis Young was a Miami-born artist of Bahamian descent. His richly colored, highly expressionistic paintings, drawings, books, and collages made with found objects or repurposed materials chronicle the daily life and struggles of Miami’s Overtown neighborhood where he lived and worked. A self-taught artist, Young developed a unique and compelling visual vocabulary drawing from American history, war documentaries, art history books, and spiritual folklore. The symbolic imagery and recurrent motifs in his work includes characters such as protestors, immigrants, soldiers, pregnant women, angels, and warriors.  

Young’s strong affinity with the warrior figure—a person fighting for a cause—recurs in the numerous battle scenes he painted in the late 1980s and early 2000s. In the diptych entitled Battle (ca. 1990s), expressive brushstrokes and writhing lines animate a composition painted over two horizontal wooden panels framed with carpet ribbon. In the right panel, a group of warriors armed with lances and shields and a herd of horses—symbolizing the yearning for freedom—hover over an imaginary landscape. On the left, warriors on horseback confront a pair of large, green, disembodied eyes, which in Young’s visual lexicon represent authority, the all-seeing power of “the system” or “the establishment.”  

Exemplifying the storytelling aspect of Young’s paintings, Battle makes a poignant comment on the plight of the underprivileged. Young’s prolific and visionary artworks bear witness to the suffering of Black communities while expressing his aspirations and hopes for a more just and equitable world.