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Can a work of art with vacillating or unclear motives be political? Laylah Ali once asked this in a 2008 roundtable published in Art in America. In her case the question is rhetorical, as her “Greenheads Series,” 1996–2005, comprising about eighty small gouache works on paper, has consistently confounded viewers seeking precise meaning in the cartoonish yet quizzically violent scenes enacted by stick-thin, brown-skinned masked figures with oversize pine-green heads shaped like bowling balls. This exhibition, gathering over forty mostly untitled paintings, does little to explicate the ambiguous relationships of power suffusing her work. It does, however, clarify, through a chronological presentation, that responses to ruthless authority become internalized over time.
Beginning with scenes of bullying—B Painting, 1996, shows one figure choking another, with a third menacing the victim with a belt—the series segues into depictions of attacks by uniformed authorities, and their aftermath. In one work from 1999, a quartet of tortured greenheads truncated at the waist have been hoisted onto poles by their captors. In another from the same year, four figures lie frightened in hospital beds, their chests covered with suction cups and bodies hitched by a red tube. Paintings created in 2000 and after cede to a kind of reluctant conciliation, with greenheads offering severed body parts to each other as supplication. In 2003 Ali introduced headless mounds sprouting waving legs and stumpy appendages that resemble wineskins or bagpipes—a psychological disfiguration manifest physically. She ends the series with several portraits of individuals wearing ornate headdresses, perhaps modeled on Yoruba beaded crowns, but whose countenances are hard to read.
Even though Ali particularizes the greenheads with belts, socks, and sneakers, and with shackles, slings, and bandages, she withholds their narrative context. Set against sky-blue backdrops of uniformly spread gouache, they inhabit locations that remain unidentifiable and placeless. Simple, precisely delineated facial expressions—among them anger, fear, agitation, surprise, mourning, helplessness, complacency—heighten the tension and suspend the viewer in the same anxious state in which the greenheads find themselves, perhaps a singular presentiment shared by both oppressor and oppressed.