Over the course of his long career and particularly in his renowned public works, Purvis Young created an expressive record of life in the Miami neighborhood of Overtown. Young’s gestural, figurative style of painting and drawing in ink appeared on diverse found materials—cardboard, discarded doors, orange crates, telephone bills, printed book pages, and manila folders, among many others. These works’ writhing calligraphic lines and frenzied bursts of color depict crowds of people and recurring figures and motifs that include angels and ancestors, refugees and prisoners, pregnant women and protestors, and soldiers and workers. These subjects draw from Young’s immediate environment and from the aspirations and everyday life of people in Overtown, the historically Black neighborhood devastated in the 1960s by the construction of Miami’s major highways.
The drawing Diding it to me depicts a pregnant woman in profile; a bright-blue eye hovers behind her head, confronting the viewer. The image attests to Young’s complex metaphorical language; for Young, the depiction of a pregnant female symbolizes the future, creation, and salvation. He explained the broad social, political, and spiritual ramifications of the image, which he saw as “giving birth to a new nation” and “gonna start us a kingdom.” The eye also appears in Heavy Eye on the drawing’s verso, with a male figure struggling to bear its weight, his feet in chains. In Young’s works the eye symbolizes the control and authority of an all-seeing establishment—a stark contrast and a menace to the suggestions of renewal otherwise depicted.
The works of Purvis Young (b. 1943, Miami; d. 2010, Miami) are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; American Folk Art Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, among others. His work has recently been featured in major solo exhibitions at the Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2018–19), and Palazzo Mora, Venice (2019), as well as in group exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.