Black Visual Archive (BVA) is dedicated to the documentation and review of contemporary black and post-black visual culture. Founded in 2010 by Meg Onli, BVA is a collection of critical writings that contextualizes the work of African American artists through historical and visual history. Based in Chicago, BVA investigates the city as a unique site for black visual culture with articles, reviews, and interviews that have surveyed the works of Kerry James Marshall and Theaster Gates while also reflecting on the defining archives of Johnson Publishing Company and Numero Group. With a particular interest in how contemporary artists mine the complex history of black representation in America, BVA will continually reflect and link works within their sociocultural constructs.


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Written by Meg Onli
Edited by Gracen Brilmyer

A project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

Interview with Laylah Ali

No. 8
Posted on

Depicting characters that negate both race and gender, Laylah Ali’s paintings and drawings often infer the moment before and after acts of violence. In her initial series, Greenheads, Ali references not only comic books and 60s animations but also images of historical unrest and uprisings. Over time her paintings have evolved from depictions of homogeneous groupings of characters to individual portraits that distinguish the subject by ornamental headdresses and variant skin tones. The physicality of the paintings manifests in “superflat” gouache works on paper that are often intimate in scale, while her drawings vacillate between looser doodles to methodical ink works that frequently have meticulous crosshatching.

In her more recent work, including the series Typology, Ali positions herself in the role of the portrait artist – with her characters assuming the posture of warriors and soldiers. Ali has spoken of the consistent news feeds that enter her studio, whether through streaming radio or reading newspapers, and it is easy to see the how the imagery enters the work. In Greenheads, where characters appear hanging from nooses, carrying limbs that have been being hacked off, the viewer can recognize parallels between events in the work and in reality, but can never pinpoint any direct reference.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Ali received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She has exhibited work at the Venice Biennale (2003) and the Whitney Biennial (2004) and has had solo exhibitions at the MCA, Chicago, Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, ICA, Boston, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, among others.

“Untitled,” (2000) Gouache on paper

Black Visual Archive: In some of your earlier work, most notably with the Greenheads, the characters are somewhat homogeneous. Although they do have accessories, such as belts and capes, they are often accessorized uniformly. However, your more recent work, particularly your Typology series, individuals have embellishments and unique characteristics. What led to this evolution with the characters?

Laylah Ali: In the earlier work, I was more interested in group dynamics, both within the group and between competing groups.  Over time, I wanted to see how much could be indicated without explicit actions. How much could be read through the faces, clothes, and postures of the characters? So, I started working on portraits of these imaginary characters.

BVA: Could you discuss your relationship between your painting practice and your drawings? I have seen you lecture before and sensed that you treated them as two very distinct methods of working? Is there a certain amount of flexibility that allows you to experiment more with your drawings than with your painting?

LA: Drawing is an extension of my thinking process– it is a form of note taking.  Sometimes, those notes can be quite developed, like the ink drawings I did for the Typology series.  The paintings are more like theater works– they require more preparation and study, various drafts beforehand. They engage moreso in spectacle.

BVA: Many of your works have been interpreted to reflect the violence that occurs throughout history and in our media today. Do you find yourself in the position of a historical painter —recreating these singular moments — or do the depictions function more as a therapeutic relief?

LA: I would say they are one fifth history (meaning derived or referencing things that actually occurred)  and one fifth my own psycho-political impulses (meaning the place where my psychological loose ends meet the material).

BVA: You have mentioned your relationship with paper and the aesthetics of gouache. Does the surface that your paintings are printed on affect your relationship or interpretation of them? Does gouache, which is inherently matte, translate differently for you when it is reproduced on the gloss paper of an exhibition catalog?

LA: I love this question. People rarely ask detailed questions about gouache. Of course, the surface matters, and like many artists, I am sensitive to how materials act on a particular surface. Some of the subtleties of gouache– the slight velvety quality or the touch of chalkiness in some gouaches– is lost in reproduction.  One is often left with images in print that look like they could have been done on a computer.
The tension of making these by hand infuses the paintings with a certain tension that one senses when seeing the actual painting.

BVA: When looking at some of your more recent work, I have noticed a movement toward historical character representation. Before, characters often interacted with each other, however, now I see them depicted through portraits of warriors and priests. Is there a connection between this recent work and traditional portraiture?

LA: I love how traditional portraiture is so restrictive and that it seems to rely on the discomfort of the sitter. I liked working within such restrictions and trying to elicit as much as possible.

* Special thanks to Harrell Fletcher and Portland State University’s art department for making this interview possible.