Laylah Ali’s Greenheads at the Johnson Museum

By Daniela Pimentel

Last fall, the Johnson Museum held an exhibition of more than forty paintings from Laylah Ali’s series titled Greenheads. The precisely delineated gouache works on paper are best interpreted as a group, as each work presents different tableaux of interaction between Ali’s pared down figures of power that seem to inhabit a peculiar political universe. Cartoonish figures sport a range of costumes and signifiers, from white pope-like headpieces to black ski masks on the head or just the eyes. All are depicted with green heads (as the title would suggest) that confuse the viewer seeking to identify race, and gender or age distinctions are just as difficult to pin down. Their actions are less ambiguous than the figures’ appearance – the Greenheads engage in torture, murder, beheadings, salutes, and the mutilation of various limbs. Their bodies and faces are rendered as simply and cleanly as possible, and impart more about relationships, identities, and structures of power because they are boiled down to simple bodily and facial signifiers of conflict, war, and violence. The visage of each Greenhead features a crude expression of grief, anger, pain, or fear that grips the viewer through its fundamental rendering of the surface-face, flat and full of holes.

Upon first viewing the Greenheads, I immediately attempted to parse the circumstances and groups responsible for the obvious conflict in front of me. There was clearly some sort of revolt, though never clear for what purpose or from which set of figures to another. It soon became clear that the point of navigating through these signs and signifiers was to become aware of what we look at and look for when we see images of revolt. And because of the engrossing seriality of the Greenheads, we witness the circularity, manifestation, networking and variation of signifiers and faciality. We see expression and costume change, and with it the actions of the figures re-territorialized and redefined. It is a body of work in which power structures and the regimes of signs are laid bare for the viewer to explore which signs and signifiers we respond to in different visualizations of power and revolt.

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