Mnemonic Murals of Blackness: Purvis Young Redux at the Tampa Museum of Art

Published February 15th 2024
By Danelle Bernten

At the Tampa Museum of Art’s ongoing exhibitions from June 18, 2022 through June 29, 2025 of Purvis Young’s 91 works in their permanent collection, we stand in awe of their continued vitality, vibrancy of color, dynamism and relevancy today.  A vernacular artist, Young absorbed the world around him and the texts that he read in Miami-Dade Public Libraries to create worlds of fiction, fun, human foibles, and facts. The facts are clear regarding his mastery of painting and drawing and his eclectic use of the ordinary, the refuse, and the unexpected (abandoned storefronts) to draw his images of black life in Miami, Florida.  He presents us a world in motion-of flight, forced Black internal migration, South Florida immigration, protest, and tenuous peace. He reminds us that peace is one forever tinged with lurking violence. The destruction of Overtown’s cohesive Black community through crippling urban planning and renewal projects by local government and the devastating racial riots of 1980s Miami are not so distant memories for some still living today. He delineates the reality of Black life in Miami with lyrical sinuous lines of formalist grace shaded with grainy chiaroscuro and black frustrations. The eyeless overlapping figures are ghostly bodily reminders of actual people protesting (and sometimes dying) during their manifestations of physical dissent amid racial tension and strife in the American South from past, present, and the future. 

Dr. Cheryl Finley’s analysis of mnemonic aesthetics-a tool for black artists to remember and creatively draft art in anachronistic ways is one successfully employed by Young(1). Young consciously and unconsciously documents the struggles and triumphs of the black diaspora in ways that will never appear dated.  

The museum has arranged many of the works from floor to ceiling à la Grand Salons of Europe’s past to achieve several goals that this exhibition review cannot completely encompass. One goal was to recreate a perception of Young’s murals on Goodbread Alley and other Miami locales.  Second, this arrangement reminds us of his hard work and exceptional skills reflecting visible and hidden textures in his choice of material support coupled with sketched, incised, and painted lines, shapes, and stark values. The third reason may be the curator’s goal in demonstrating the repetitive motifs in Young’s works thereby magnifying the world of his own as one of internal and external gravitas. 

In his works, faceless, nameless, legion figures stand to contest the racial violence perpetrated by corrupt law enforcement in 1980s Miami-almost in group silhouettes of isolation, save the images of riders on horseback with them. Each lean and/or curved body extends in Mannerist exaggeration, but the pregnant female body protrudes an abnormal bubble of irrational exuberance(2). Has Young given us a prescient sign of black economic and/or political fecundity in the 1990s and 2000s in the womb of a flying spaceship surrounded by elongated black genetic chromosomes or fertile assembly lines of despondency? 

Purvis Young (American, 1943-2010), Untitled, c. 1985-99. Mixed media. Tampa Museum of Art, Gift of the Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida, 2004.046.001-.091. Image courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art. Photographer: Philip LaDeau

When one recalls the numerous race riots of the 1970s and 1980s from Soweto 1976 uprisings to Camden, New Jersey Riots of 1969 and 1971 to Overtown-Liberty City Riots in 1980s Miami, Young’s black figure of protest is atemporal, omnipresent, and Everything Everywhere All at Once-even today. While Young died in 2010, anti-black violence continues unabated. In fact, we collapse into a black hole of anti-black racial violence and excessive state force in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others. Redux is found in the suffering of black flesh.  

Curator, Joanna Robotham’s recent quotes on Young’s works place his pieces in spaces between utopia and dystopia(3). We can see this expectant intermediary cosmos in Young’s swollen bellies of his pregnant women. We see in this detail below that the black pregnant woman’s belly bears two lives of its own; one life full of high-minded Afrofuturist possibilities and interplanetary travel and another life chockfull of Chuck E. Cheese and Dandy Bear birthday parties.                                                      

The head of the female figure is drawn far from its bodily frame appearing to sit almost completely on the extended body. It is ready to beam off into a galaxy far and away from the trauma of anti-black violence. The abnormally slender necks and legs compared to the body make the body less human, but not de-humanized.  She is an alien of Young’s making-one who can support the weight of the universe in her womb and one who can shield her children with outstretched planetary skin and bring them to a new Earth-one free from racial hostilities. While Afrofuturism is not a term that we normally associate with the works of Purvis Young, he loops the realms of outer space into the world of black everyday experience with the bulging planetary and/or spaceship bellies of black maternity. Young advises us that his galactic maternal balloons of hope are not whimsical readings of his works.  

The protests Young portrayed were ones in which Miami's black communities suffered heavily in deaths, property damage, and morale-exacerbating the high levels of poverty, blight, and inequity already present. Three years after Young’s death by illness, Black Lives Matter (BLM) 2013 protests initiated by three Black women in reaction to anti-black violence through today are primarily peaceful protests with participation from other racial groups as well. The contemporary black figure does not stumble nor stand alone. They are not shapes superimposed in uneven outlines of rage, fear, and violence, but are ones who have been transported by recent jury verdicts-criminal and civil-to new courtly lands of social and cultural visibility. 

Purvis Young Redux is currently on view at the Tampa Museum of Art through 2025. You can learn more about Young and his work at his website.

Danelle Bernten (she/her) is an Art Historian residing in Tallahassee, Florida.

(1) Cheryl Finley, Committed to Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 10.

(2) Robert J. Schiller, Irrational Exuberance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

(3) Chadd Scott, “Purvis Young’s Overtown Brought Life at Tampa Museum of Art,” Forbes Journal March 5, 2023 at