Freedom beyond identification: talking art and politics with professor Laylah Ali ’91

After picking up the catalogue for the Freestyle show at New York City’s Studio Museum in Harlem this past summer and realizing that painter Laylah Ali ’91 was both a Williams graduate and a professor as of last fall, I decided to meet Prof. Ali and talk to her about her work. Ali’s paintings are distinguished by the carefully crafted figures that she calls “Greenheads,” which are often depicted in varying states of distress and exploitation.

While the figures borrow their unisex gear from spheres as different as professional sports, the Christian church, concentration camps and lynching rituals, they resist any attempts by viewers to read them or their actions simplistically. Ali’s challenge to her viewer is to create a language to describe the violence that we see the “Greenheads” inflicting upon each other without resorting to the cultural markers of race, gender and sexuality readily available to us. Read in this manner, Ali’s work seems to ask the viewer, “how would you read this violence if you didn’t know how to identify the victims or the perpetrators?”

Described by Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum, as performing “post-black” artistic production, Ali meticulously creates images that spark controversy about the roles that artists of color can and should assume. Resisting the admonitions – dating back to the early twentieth century – to black artists to create work that “uplifts the race,” Ali has created a space for herself where she can freely imagine the ways that our various subject positions shape our ideas about what it means to be American. Ali, in her own words, is about the business of constructing new meanings where clumsy axes of identifications have failed.

Not to be confused with another woman of the same name, daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali, Ali is a part-time lecturer teaching painting in the art department at Williams. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Ali attended Williams in the early ’90s, after which she participated in the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She completed her masters in fine art degree at Washington University and studied further at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Ali’s work has been shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Her most recent effort is a comic/artist’s book created as part of the Projects 75 series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. To see some images of her work, check out her website, www.303gallery.com.

What’s the strangest thing for you about being back at Williams as a professor? Do you find that this is a good place for you to do your artistic work or are there places where you flow more easily?

One of the strangest things about being back is how little has changed. Well, let me put it this way – Williams has the appearance and feel of remaining unchanged, though I know there are some real differences. That allows for the occasional time slippage for me, which can be a little disconcerting. I suppose in that way it’s the same feeling as returning home after being away for awhile – you want the house and the people in it to have changed, to have somehow noticeably marked the passage of time. But you can also take some comfort in those things that are recognizable.

I can do my work practically anywhere, but the energy and unpredictability of an urban environment is more stimulating for my thought process. The Williams campus is an orderly, landscaped place that lacks visual disruptions. There’s the occasional smashed beer bottle or plastic cup, or a building that looks a little out of place, but for the most part, one does not see an array of clothing choices, beat-up cars or mysterious items left behind on the sidewalk. It’s always helpful for my work to be jarred out of my own narrative and into another.

How did growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. influence the way that you think about race, class and other kinds of politics that divide Americans?

Buffalo was a very segregated city that was starting to suffer economically when I was a kid. I grew up in a white working class suburb – the town of Tonawanda, N.Y. – that was, at the time, fairly hostile to black people. This was the early 1970s. My dad wanted to stay because of the school system, which was quite good at the time.

Growing up there definitely politicized me at a very young age. I was made aware, because of the fairly routine verbal and physical harassment, of racial antagonisms and how they took on different expressions in various environments: in school, on the street, in people’s homes. I grew up warily, and certainly that shaped me.

I didn’t start to think of these dynamics in terms of class until I left public school and attended a private day school which had a mostly moneyed group of students. There are many stories from there as well, all ones that make for great retrospective storytelling, but the short of it is that I still feel very connected to Buffalo, or the version of it that’s in my head. I am very much from there.

When did you first think that you wanted to pursue art full time? Were there particular teachers at Williams or elsewhere who pushed you along in terms of trying to figure out what kind of work you wanted to make?

It was at Williams that I started to think about continuing with art. I started by taking a drawing class just because I wanted to and then took another art class, then another. I wouldn’t say I made the decision to pursue it full time; I never thought “I want to be an artist,” but I wanted to keep drawing and painting.

Going to graduate school was a way to do that. So I kept taking the opportunities as they arose, and then, at some point, it was what I was qualified to do. I give absolute credit to many members of the studio department here – Mike Glier, Peggy Diggs, Ed Epping and Barbara Takenaga – for both pushing me to look at things I didn’t know about and asking me hard questions about the work I was doing.

How do you feel about museum curator Thelma Golden’s use of the word “post-black” in her description of the Freestyle exhibit? Do you think that the phrase accurately defines your work or is just a savvy neologism?

“Post-black” seems to anticipate a movement more than name what currently is going on. It’s a term that wants freedom from these confining identity categories which rarely get it quite right. So I appreciate the openness that’s built into “post-black,” because it demands a discussion. I like to think that my work poses questions and in that way, perhaps they are compatible.

I read about a talk you gave where you referenced Walter Mosley’s argument that those who feel oppressed have to discover ways not only to imagine alternative narratives but also to recount the ones that already exist. Why do you feel like your work takes on such a futuristic feel?

I like to quote him from his essay “Black to the Future,” on what science fiction offers in terms of freedom of possibilities for people of color. He has a line like “in science fiction, you can have a black president, superhero, Lex Luthor-type villain, whatever – if you can imagine it, it can be” – I’m wildly misquoting but that’s the gist of it. But the tension between that ideal and the world we live in can be a place of discovery, though not always the optimistic, feel-good kind.

For my own work, I wanted to make a figure that I hadn’t seen before. I was tired of work, including my own, that only mined the past for images that referred to non-white figures. So I aimed for making a figure that acted as a question mark. I think that the most obvious reason that they feel futuristic is because they are wearing unisex outfits and have green heads. Also, they don’t really live anywhere except in blue space.

How does the comic/artist’s book exhibited at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) differ from the other kinds of painting that you’ve done before? Were you always interested in doing a comic book eventually? Was this your first foray into that genre? Are there other media that you’d like to use in your work in the future, delving into sculpture or other three-dimensional forms of art?

I had been wanting to try to do an extended narrative in a hybrid artist/comic book form, and the MoMA project offered the opportunity to do a mini-version of it. I made the images on the computer, so the process was very different than painting them, which would have taken too long for the amount of time I had been given. I am still interested in seeing images on a flat surface, so I haven’t considered sculpture. I enjoy how working on paper feels like a kind of writing. The intimacy and privacy of the way I work is still important to me.

Your work usually features figures, or greenheads, especially mothers and children, in various states of distress. Why do you choose to work with children’s figures? When did you first start drawing these figures and why? How have they developed as you’ve refined your own technique and style?

Sometimes I think of them as younger figures and sometimes I think of them as smaller people – like that’s as big as they are going to get. For the most part, all of the figures are trying to survive and improve their situations somehow. I’m not sure what mothers you are referring to – people who look at the work often name the figures in ways that I haven’t thought of, and I’m not immediately remembering figures that I thought of specifically as mothers. But maybe they are figures who are protecting smaller ones?

What about the way that sports and religious figures appear in your work?

I often draw from what is ubiquitous in the U.S. media. So I may approach an image thinking, how can I rework these figures so they take on new meaning? So, sports and priestly types are certainly of interest.

Did the Sept. 11 moment of seeing people falling from the Towers inform images of falling people that appear in the comic book? What political events over the past few years have moved you to create new work?

The ideas for the book were in place before Sept. 11. So no, those figures have been falling for a while. Practically all of the news that we are privy to here in the U.S. is of interest to me right now. I’m really interested in what’s going in Venezuela because the story keeps changing and becoming more complicated – and more predictable.

The presentation of the story in the comic book seems theatrical with a sense that there are things going on behind the scenes, people pulling characters out of the frames. Was that intentional? Are we to fill in the blanks of the story that you don’t tell?

I expect the viewer to participate in the work. Looking at the book should not be entered into as a passive experience. If it is, I expect it won’t mean much at all. The viewer has to give, too. The viewer ultimately names the figures and their actions. I always like to listen to what story has been made when I have a chance to hear a reaction to it. And, yes, I often think of them as moving in a theatrical space. In my paintings, there is usually a simple stage.

Are the figures gendered? Raced? Are there any particular ways that you want your work to be interpreted/read or not?

In their own world, if there could be such a thing that is isolated from ours, I’m not sure I would call it gender or race. In some ways, the work wants to construct something different – more precise and unpredictable that is not named so clumsily as race, gender, sexuality. I am finding that those words are often used as escape hatches from constructing meaning – or new meanings.