Laylah Ali

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Laylah Ali
Born Buffalo, New York
Nationality American

1994 M.F.A., Washington University in St. Louis, MO 1993 Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME 1992 Whitney Independent Study Program, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

1991 B.A., Williams College, Williamstown, MA
Known for Painting
Notable work The Greenheads Series
Style Gouache

2008 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant 2007 United States Artists Fellowship 2002 William H. Johnson Prize 2001 Premio Regione Piemonte (Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Per L’Arte, Turin, Italy)

2000 ICA Artist Prize (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts)

Laylah Ali (born 1968, Buffalo, New York[1]) is a contemporary visual artist known for paintings in which ambiguous race relations are depicted with a graphic clarity and cartoon strip format.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

In her youth, Ali originally intended to be a lawyer or a doctor.[3] She received her B.A. (English and Studio Art) from Williams College, Williamstown, MA and her M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, MO. She lives and works in Williamstown, Massachusetts.[1] She is currently a professor at Williams College.[4]


About Ali's work: "In style, her paintings resemble comic-book serials, but they also contain stylistic references to hieroglyphics and American folk-art traditions. Ali often achieves a high level of emotional tension in her work as a result of juxtaposing brightly colored scenes with dark, often violent subject matter that speaks of political resistance, social relationships, and betrayal. Although Ali’s interest in representations of socio-political issues and current events drives her work, her finished paintings rarely reveal specific references. Her most famous and longest-running series of paintings depicts the brown-skinned and gender-neutral Greenheads, while her most recent works include portraits as well as more abstract biomorphic images. Ali endows the characters and scenes in her paintings with everyday attributes like dodge balls, sneakers, and Band-aids, as well as historically- and culturally-loaded items such as nooses, hoods, robes, masks, and military-style uniforms. Her drawings, which she describes as “automatic,” are looser and more playful than the paintings and are often the source of material that she explores more deeply in her paintings.".[5]

In Ali's earlier work, she would draw or paint something violent. She focused more on the action, than the violence itself. In her current work, there is not a lot of focus on the act; she is more attentive to what happens before and after.[6] The subject of Ali's most well-known gouache paintings are the Greenheads – characters designed to minimize or eliminate categorical differences of gender, height, age, and in some ways race.[7] The works are small scale gouache paintings and drawings on paper. She is known to prepare for many months, planning out every detail so there are no room for mistakes. Ali says she will use one brush for one color and will label the brushes so there is no cross contamination amongst brushes. Ali's work is based on life experiences. Although you may not be able to tell, she says all of her work holds meaning and that what's in her mind transcends from her hands on paper.[8] “I’m influenced by all of the kinds of looking that I’m doing at different images. But when I sit down to do these drawings, I don’t look at anything. I just sit down and do them.” Ali says.[9]

About the performative nature of her work, Ali says, "The paintings can be like crude stages or sets, the figures like characters in a play. I think of them equally as characters and figures."[10]

In one of her pieces, which can be found on page 27, she talks about how she is working on more fragmented pieces – body parts that sprout from mounds, they have on tube socks or sneakers. The purpose of this is as she explains, “In the newer work, the figures just have legs. They don’t really have the gift of arms. Removing arms, I can figure out what can be done without arms, what kinds of commands can be given through other kinds of gestures. There’s still a lot of power left in the body, and I’m trying to see how much I can take out and still retain a powerful or influential core, or one that can tell a story”[11]

About Ali's work in her own words: "I’m not sure that my personal rage or anger needs to resonate in the work. It does fuel my need to make the work, to engage, to destroy, rebuild, keep at it. I think what I’m trying to do is to see what happens when something so seemingly dead-ended as rage becomes part of a process, a meticulous process where it becomes fused with other strains such as depressive impulses and actual ideas and questions about the world we live in—to see what this stitched-together creation becomes. So the anger becomes an important part of the process but not necessarily the outcome. My body definitely undergoes the stress and tension of working on the paintings, but that tension is directed into the figures and their exchanges. I really wanted to resist any easy connection to the artist—people always want to go there, to the pathology of the artist, rather than examining themselves. I think I need to disappear a bit in order for the viewer to engage more fully." [5]

Since 2015, Ali has been working on a series of paintings she calls Acephalous, featuring figures she describes as gender conscious, potentially sexual or sexualized, some of which have racial characteristics and some of which do not have heads. "They are on an endless, determined trek, a multi-part journey," she says. "It has elements of a forced migration."[10]


Laylah Ali has collaborated with dancer/choreographer Dean Moss at The Kitchen in 2005[12] with Figures on a Field and in 2014 with johnbrown

In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, commissioned Ali to create a wordless graphic novelette.[13]


Ali’s works are included in the permanent collections of numerous public institutions, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, IL; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, among many others.[14]


Solo and Group Exhibitions[edit]

Laylah Ali has exhibited in both the Venice Biennial (2003) and the Whitney Biennial (2004)[8] Other exhibitions are as follows:

  • 2015-2016: University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan, October 17, 2015 – January 31, 2016
  • 2015-2016: ASSISTED, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago, IL, September 12, 2015 – January 16, 2016
  • 2015: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, February 17–May 15, 2016
  • 2015: Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey, February 8–May 17
  • 2015: Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA, June 12– September 20
  • 2015: "The Acephalous Series," PAUL KASMIN GALLERY, New York
  • 2014: Personal Histories, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, July 5 – May 3, 2014 Up Every Evening, Season gallery, Seattle, Washington, spring
  • 2013: Laylah Ali: The Greenheads Series. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, NY.
  • 2013: Laylah Ali: The Greenheads Series. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota;
  • 2013: The Shadows Took Shape, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY (catalog)
  • 2013: Ambiguous Histories: Selected Art from the Exit Art Portfolios, Art, Design, and Architecture Museum, University of Santa Barbara, CA
  • 2013: Laylah Ali & Gerald Cyrus, Pennsylvania College of Art and Design Gallery, Lancaster, PA Direct Democracy, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, Australia (catalog)
  • 2013: Painting Between the Lines, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA (catalog)
  • 2013: Revelations: Examining Democracy, Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
  • 2012: Thenceforward, and Forever Free, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
  • 2012: Under the Influence: The Comics, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, NY
  • 2012: The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA (catalog)
  • 2011: The Air We Breathe, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA (catalog)
  • 2011: Painting Between the Lines, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA (catalog)
  • 2011: Relatos extraordinarios: Laylah Ali and Abigail Lazkoz, Sala Parpallo, Valencia, Spain (catalog)
  • 2011: Vivid: Female Currents in Painting, Schroeder Romero & Shredder, New York, NY
  • 2010: Works on paper from the MCA collection. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago;
  • 2010: Collected: Reflections on the Permanent Collection, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
  • 2009: Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, Art Works for Change—travelled to Stenersenmuseet, Oslo, Norway (2009); University Art Gallery, University of California, San Diego, CA (2009-2010); Centro Cultural Tijuana, Mexico (2010); Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico (2010); Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL (2010); Global Health Odyssey Museum, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA (2011) Paper Trail: A Decade of Acquisitions from the Walker Art Center, Figge Art Museum, Davenport, IA Massachusetts Review: Celebrating Fifty Years of Covers, University Gallery, Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA If I Didn’t Care: Generational Artists Discuss Cultural Histories, The Park School, Baltimore, MD
  • 2008: Laylah Ali: Notes/Drawings/Untitled Afflictions, DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park: August 30, 2008 - January 4, 2009[15]
  • 2008: Beyond Drawing: Constructed Realities, Ohio University Art Gallery, Athens Fantastical Imaginings, Delaware Center of Contemporary Arts, Wilmington— travelled to Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore (2009); Political Circus, Florida Atlantic University, Ritter Art Gallery, Boca Raton; On the Margins, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri (catalog); Disguised, Rotwand Gallery, Zurich, Switzerland; Out of Shape, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York (catalog)
  • 2008: Taking Possession, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Perverted by Theater, Apex Art, New York, NY; Pandora's Box, Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada (catalog)
  • 2008: U-turn Quadrennial for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen, Denmark (catalog)
  • 2007: the kiss and other warriors. Institute of International Visual Arts, London;
  • 2006: Alien Nation, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London—traveled to Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, England (catalog) Cult Fiction, Hayward Gallery, London, England (catalog)
  • 2006: Counterparts: Contemporary Painters and Their Influences, Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach, VA (catalog) Running Around the Pool, Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, Tallahassee. FL (catalog) XXS, Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, Israel American Matrix, Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL Black Alphabet, Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland (catalog) Having New Eyes, Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, CO
  • 2005: The Body. The Ruin, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia (catalog) Cut, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles, CA Vivi-Seccion: Dibujo Contemporaneo, Museo de Arte Carillo Gil, Mexico City, Mexico
  • 2004: Whitney Biennial 2004, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (catalog) Material Witness, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OH (catalog) The 10 Commandments, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Germany
  • 2004: Laylah Ali: Types. Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis;
  • 2003: Crosscurrents at Century’s End: Selections from the Neuberger Berman Art Collection, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA—travelled to Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL; Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, FL; Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL (catalog)
  • 2003: Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (catalog) me & more, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Switzerland (catalog)
  • 2003: Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX—traveled to Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH (catalog)
  • 2002: Projects 75: Laylah Ali. Museum of Modern Art, New York;
  • 2002: Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—traveled to Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, LA; University of North Texas Gallery, Denton; Western Washington University, Bellingham (catalog) Fantasyland, D’Amelio Terras, New York, NY First Person Singular, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA Painting in Boston, DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA
  • 2001: Laylah Ali. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston;
  • 2001: Against the Wall: Painting Against the Grid, Surface, Frame, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, PA Freestyle, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY (catalog)
  • 2001: FRESH: The Altoids Curiously Strong Collection 1998-2000, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY Guarene Arte 2001, Palazzo Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy
  • 2001: A Work in Progress: Selections from the New Museum Collection, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY
  • 2000: Art on Paper 2000, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC
  • 1999: Bizarro World! The Parallel Universes of Comics and Fine Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, FL Collectors Collect Contemporary, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA The 1999 DeCordova Annual Exhibition, DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA (catalog)
  • 1999: No Place Rather than Here, 303 Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1998: Paradise 8, Exit Art, New York, NY Posing, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA Selections Summer 1998, The Drawing Center, New York, NY Telling Tales, Atrium Gallery, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT


  1. ^ a b Baker, Alex (2007) Laylah Ali: Typology. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. p. 47. ISBN 9780943836300
  2. ^ Cotter, Holland (2000). "ART IN REVIEW; Laylah Ali" (June 30). The New York Times. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "Laylah Ali on Greenheads, Violence in Art, and More | BU Today | Boston University". BU Today. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  4. ^ "Laylah Ali: The Greenheads Series". Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Retrieved 17 March 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  5. ^ a b "Laylah Ali — Art21". Art21. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  6. ^ Sollins, Susan (2005). Art 21: art in the 21st century 3. Purchase College. p. 28. ISBN 081095916X. 
  7. ^ Ali, Laylah. "Interview." Laylah Ali. By Rebecca Walker. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2001.
  8. ^ a b "Laylah Ali". ART21, Inc. 2001–2015. Retrieved 17 March 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  9. ^ Sollins, Susan (2005). Art 21: art in the 21st century 3. Purchase College. p. 30. ISBN 081095916X. 
  10. ^ a b "Juxtapoz Magazine - Laylah Ali: Bodies in Notion". Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  11. ^ Sollins, Susan (2005). Art 21: art in the 21st century 3. Purchase College. p. 26. ISBN 081095916X. 
  12. ^ Cornuelle, Kimberly (4 November 2010). "Laylah Ali on Greenheads, Violence in Art, and More". Boston University. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  13. ^ "The Believer - Interview with Laylah Ali". The Believer. 2005-12-01. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  14. ^ "Paul Kasmin Gallery - Laylah Ali". Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  15. ^ Ali, Laylah; DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park (2008-01-01). Laylah Ali: note drawings. [Lincoln, MA?]: Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park. ISBN 9780945506591. 

External links[edit]