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Laylah Ali on Greenheads, Violence in Art, and More

CFA’s Contemporary Perspectives Lecture tonight


Untitled, 2005-2007, gouache on paper, 20” x 27.” Courtesy of Laylah Ali

Artist Laylah Ali is best known for her unforgettable Greenheads series—small, wonderfully detailed paintings of androgynous, cartoon-like figures. Look closer and you can find a violent undercurrent. The series, like much of Ali’s work, has been likened to hieroglyphics, where the viewer has to decipher meaning.

The 42-year-old Ali, whose work is often inspired by current events and often has a sociopolitical bent, will deliver the College of Fine Arts Contemporary Perspectives Lecture tonight at 6 p.m.

While Ali’s work has been described as ambiguous and confounding, she welcomes discussion about her art—even differences of opinion about it. “You don’t have to paint, or even like my style of painting, to have a conversation,” she says. “A mistake often made about artists is that we assume their style is their substance. And that’s not necessarily true.”

Solid colors and everyday objects—sneakers, Band-aids, dodgeballs—appear frequently in Ali’s work and are often juxtaposed with themes of political resistance and betrayal. Her carefully plotted gouache on paper paintings often result in scenes saturated with tension.

Ali, who will discuss her work this evening, says, “I’m not good with saying, ‘Well, this is what the work is about.’ The work can be about, ‘This is what happened to me’ and ‘This is what I’m looking at in the world.’ But it shifts. It would take for me to finish a work, look at it, live with it—and then I could maybe start telling you about it. But as I’m working on it, it’s still too close.”

She is currently working on a performance art piece with performance and video artist Dean Moss, whom she worked with on a series called Figures on a Field, using dancers and audiences to reinterpret scenes from some of her earlier work. Ali also creates portraits, as well as more abstract biomorphic images. Each work can take months to perfect.

Growing up, Ali, who studied art at Williams College, Washington University, and as a member of the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study program, wanted to be either a teacher or a lawyer. “I didn’t plan on being an artist,” she says. “I never thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Now an associate professor at Williams, she says that “when you’re a student, you’re heavily influenced by other artists. You learn from them and discard things. It wasn’t until about five years after my junior year at college when I made something that felt like it was my own—really my own and successfully done.”

Ali has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the ICA, Boston; the MCA, Chicago; the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; and MASS MoCA, and has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale (2003) and the Whitney Biennial (2004). She attributes much of her success to perseverance and dedication.

“It’s really difficult to keep working after you leave school,” she says. “It takes a few years, and most people also have to work other jobs and support themselves at the same time. But it’s important to work on your own. If you can get through that transition time after school, it can yield something that’s wonderful.”

Contemporary Perspectives Lecture: Laylah Ali takes place today, November 4, at 6 p.m. at the CFA Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public. Call 617-353-3371 for more information.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @kcornuel.

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