DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts
August 30, 2008 - January 4, 2009
Laylah Ali’s departure in this new body of work is to layer text over and beneath her drawings. The drawings are familiar Ali: faux naïve human figures that evoke a child’s concern to convey information with linear precision, and emphasis by means of the relative size of body parts. The texts, in black cursive script, are consecutively numbered fragments, each sheet bearing between six and eleven phrases. Twenty-four sheets combine figures and text, twelve are text alone. Curator Dina Deitsch, in a text panel, states that the phrases are a compilation of random thoughts, overheard conversations, and snippets from newspapers, radio, and other media outlets.
58. A lot less white.
59. Town hall meeting.
60. “With power, with energy.”
61. Home turf.
62. Hanged in 1859.
63. “I am willing to do the
following to prove it to you.”
63A. Think big.
63B. Contemplate a huge +
Ali’s phrases are anything but poetic. Beneath the emollient banality of the reportage of casual violence is profound anger.
Many of Ali’s images and texts refer to contemporary scandals and hatreds. The green eyes of a figure in a blue burkha outstare the viewer in rage and fear. They are painted over parts of two of the words: “126. “That pra[…] st […]g bitch.” Many other references suggest contemporary malaise: “That’s why I am running to be President of the United States of America” on the same drawing; a figure clad only in striped underpants, its head in a prisoner’s hood, a scar in place of a right arm. Yet if this body of work were no more than a furious commentary on American social contradictions that permit a swing from Bush to Obama, it would scarcely be worth notice. Its richness lies in its allusions to the roots of present-day American evils in the legacy of slavery. “62. Hanged in 1859” on one sheet resonates with another with five bearded heads of various sizes (like a Rembrandt study). The first phrase on it is “32. John Brown portrait,” though these heads are not likenesses of the radical abolitionist hanged in December, 1859. Instead, the facial hair—a beard but no moustache—evokes Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. They suggest “4. A Lincoln type,” one of the eight phrases layered with a drawing of a head wearing a headdress that encloses most of the figure’s hair and beard.
These notes, drawings, and untitled afflictions tell us that nothing fundamental has changed since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. The poison of slavery has tainted American mores indelibly. This causes cruelty not only between people of different races and genders, but among all people as they view one another instrumentally rather than as moral beings. The malaise is so deep-rooted as to be not only interpersonal, but self-inflicted. This body of work articulates confusion, randomness, and casual violence in a coolly angry analysis of the terminal morbidity of America.