The work of Laylah Ali is meticulous and enigmatic. Her small, jewel-like gouache paintings can take months to plan and execute, yet depict scenes of social ambiguity and psychological tension.
On April 6, Ali (MFA94), will receive the Dean's Medal for outstanding contributions to the field of art from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. In all, seven outstanding alumni will be recognized for creativity, innovation, leadership, and vision in their respective fields during the School's annual Awards for Distinction dinner.
Christopher Fromboluti (BA67/MArch70), the lead architect for the Pentagon reconstruction after 9/11, and Richard Lorch (BA77), editor-in-chief of the journal Building Research & Information, will be honored as Distinguished Alumni in architecture.
Anisa (Baldwin Metzger) Heming (BS06), director of the U.S. Green Building Council's Center for Green Schools, will receive the Recent Alumni Award, as will interaction designer Will Bates (BFA09), user experience lead for infrastructure and data projects for Google's YouTube team.
Drawing on a wide range of sources—including comic strips, hieroglyphs, and contemporary and historical events—Ali's distinctive visual language is at once aesthetically disciplined, formally rigorous, and emotionally unsettling.
Born in Buffalo in 1968, Ali earned her BFA from Williams College in 1991 and her MFA from Washington University in 1994. Two years later, she began her long-running Greenheads series, which centers on small groups of green- and brown-skinned, gender-ambiguous figures. With their bright colors, fragmentary narratives, and dark subject matter, the Greenheads evoke themes of political struggle and civil resistance, yet rarely hinge on identifiable events.
In 2013, Ali launched John Brown Song!, commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation. The digital project comprises 19 video recordings of friends and acquaintances singing John Brown's Body, the ballad of the radical abolitionist popularized by Julia Ward Howe. In 2015, she debuted a new body of paintings, The Acephalous Series, which investigates themes of power, interpersonal dynamics, and the language of the body.
Ali's work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, among others. She is currently a professor of art at Williams College.
Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015. Gouache, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil on paper, 30 x 40 inches, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, (PK 20136). © Laylah Ali. Images courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY.