Laylah Ali

Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015. Full credit below.

Laylah Ali, MFA94

The work of Laylah Ali is meticulous and enigmatic. Her small, jewel-like gouache paintings can take months to plan and execute, yet they depict scenes of social ambiguity and psychological tension. Drawing on comic strips, hieroglyphs, contemporary and historical events, and other sources, her distinctive visual language is at once wide-ranging and aesthetically disciplined, formally rigorous and emotionally unsettling.

Born in Buffalo in 1968, Ali earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Williams College in 1991 and her Master of Fine Arts 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.

“The figure was like a question mark,” Ali told Art21, describing the origin of the series. “I would look at it, and I had no idea what it was. That prompted further examination. As I worked further, I wanted to see more.”

Though the earliest Greenhead paintings examine unsettling physical exchanges, often between aggressive groups, later examples highlight smaller clusters and individual characters. Thoughts, emotions, status, personality, disposition, and hints of violence—as well as its prelude and aftermath—are subtly communicated through a variety of recurring objects, including belts, dodge balls, uniforms, sneakers, robes, masks, and hoods.

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. The recordings vary in the performer’s familiarity and facility with the song, but together they create a haunting and deeply affective human chorus, one that is at once lament and marching order for justice.

In 2015, Ali debuted a new body of paintings, The Acephalous Series, which features decapitated figures and disembodied heads. Though larger than the Greenheads, these new works investigate similar themes: violence, power, interpersonal dynamics, and the language of the body.

“This new series could be three generations before or three generations after the Greenheads,” she told “Or simply existing simultaneously on another carbon-producing planet.”

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. Her work was featured at the 2003 Venice Biennale and the 2004 Whitney Biennial. In 2012, the Williams College Museum of Art debuted a major exhibition of her Greenhead paintings, which later traveled to the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum and Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Ali’s works are included in the permanent collections of numerous public institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and the Walker Art Center.
Ali is currently a professor of art at Williams College and shows with the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York.

Image Credit

Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015. Gouache, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil on paper, 40 x 51 inches, 101.6 x 129.5 cm, (PK 20144). © Laylah Ali. Images courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY.