For Projects 75, the Boston-based artist Laylah Ali has created her first book—a hybrid comic/artist’s book composed of panels showing her trademark green-headed, brown-bodied figures engaged in acts of violence. Stock characters that have been the subjects of Ali’s singular gouache pieces now play out their aggressions in an extended, nonlinear narrative designed by the artist as a visual novelette. (The book is on view from March 14 through May 21 in a vitrine on the second floor; copies are available for $2 in the Museum stores.)
Ali’s project borrows heavily from the traditional comic book in form but departs completely from the genre in content. Her images are precisely rendered in highly saturated hues and are organized into the comic strip structure of separated panels that normally permit an orderly progression of story. However, as the viewer moves from frame to frame, it becomes apparent that Ali has actively undermined the narrative. Furthermore, because words are nonexistent in Ali’s story, each frame is akin to a pictogram, requiring that we decipher each scene for ourselves.
Ali’s unique realm is peopled by attenuated figures, colored in multiple shades of brown, absent of definable characteristics of age, class, race, and gender. Instead, characters are differentiated by the clothes on their backs—costumes, which by necessity become signifiers of identity. Gym suits, military uniforms, ecclesiastical vestments, running shoes, hats, and masks allow the viewer to “name” Ali’s stock characters as soldiers, sports figures, superheroes, prison guards and prisoners, security officers, doctors and patients, and slaves and masters. Each frame’s apparent naïveté entices the viewer into drawing easy conclusions about the content and nature of the work.
But these images are deceptively simple. Upon closer examination of each scene, minute details emerge: manacles around necks, wrists, and legs; belts in hands, suggesting weaponry; offerings of dismembered heads and limbs; open wounds; tiny Band-Aids; apparent gunshot wounds, expressed by minuscule red dots; and Xs carved into bodies—all evidence of past acts, as well as of future threats, of violence and torture.
These meticulously rendered minutiae lead us to question our first impressions and characterizations of the inhabitants of Ali’s world. Costumes that initially allowed us to identify the characters of Ali’s story now confound us: Why does the ecclesiastical figure wear a mask and carry rope? To whom and why are the security officers presenting severed body parts? Are the masked figures superheroes or bandits? Reflecting the ambiguities of contemporary society, the monikers “good guy” and “bad guy,” “victim” and “oppressor” become meaningless in this chaotic narrative of violence and menace.
Ali capitalizes on the tension created by juxtaposing innocent comic form against serious contemporary issues, and she exploits the pictorial language of the comics in order to confront major sociocultural questions. Her substantial themes—individual and group identity, politics and power, race and class—are served up as disarmingly naive fare, the effect of which is to replace the viewer’s initial amusement with shock as the scene is slowly digested.
Ali deftly illuminates our desire to categorize and explain the world around us, revealing our ultimate inability to make clear-cut distinctions and assign finite meaning. Her art demonstrates that the myths that we construct to make sense of the world are hollow and inconclusive, thus implying that our instinctual responses to questions of consequence—identity, race, class, gender—are impotent and illusory. It is not the artist’s goal, however, to convey the sense that all in this fabricated world—and by extension, ours—is meaningless. On the contrary: if one only considers the expressions of expectation on individual faces, or notes the periodic gestures of outstretched, pleading hands, one realizes that stitched throughout Ali’s tale, hope is the constant thread.
*Kristin Helmick-Brunet, Assistant Curator, Department of Drawings. *
The Projects series is sponsored by Peter Norton.