Laylah Ali, Untitled, 2002. Gouache and pencil on paper, 11 x 9 inches (27.9 x 22.9 cm). Promised gift of Alec Terrana. Courtesy the artist. © Laylah Ali
In her distinctive gouaches, Laylah Ali depicts abstracted human figures who assume odd poses as they interact with one another. Many of them are brown-skinned, androgynous creatures she calls Greenheads. The Greenheads, with their bug eyes, simplified bodies, and pointy black boots, are recalled in the figures in Untitled.
As in all of Ali’s work, the cartoon style initially charms and disarms, but then discloses a world fraught with tension and mystery. The drawing shows a somber child being scolded by someone (perhaps his mother?). They both have strange headpieces—the boy’s is yellow with five small feet sticking out of it, and the woman’s is reddish, hairy, and horned. What do these symbolize—their tribes? A superpower? A disease? The piece has a looser technique than most of Ali’s paintings, which are customarily painstakingly composed and executed. While it is a bit less serious in tone, it retains her characteristic open-endedness. Ali allows viewers to interpret and complete her ambiguous scenes, as if they were comic-book pages with empty captions.
Joining another work by Ali in the ICA/Boston collection, this drawing provides an excellent introduction to the artist’s distinctive style and unforgettable world. It joins a nucleus of works on paper by such artists as Ambreen Butt and Yayoi Kusama.