Visual Arts Review | thru Jan. 26 It is easy to condemn prejudice and discrimination. Most of us, I dare say, believe it"s simply wrong to discriminate on the basis of skin color, sex or other physical characteristics. But what is more complicated is the notion of subtle discrimination, even the kind we perpetuate against our individual selves.
Work by Laylah Ali is being exhibited at the IMA.
The African-American artist Laylah Ali, whose thought-provoking, cartoon-style images are on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art now through Jan. 26, invites us into a murky realm of hierarchical judgment-making. Her figures are uniform in appearance, without race or gender. A blue-faced figure may be engaged in an act that suggests oppression against a green-faced figure; a black-faced figure may be wearing a white cloak with a white cone-shaped hat - suggestive, of course, of the Ku Klux Klan. Ali is obviously dealing with issues of prejudice and subjugation, but it is unclear who is perpetrating acts on whom - and why. This is the beauty of her work: She draws us into a realm where we must face the issue head on, and instead of looking at specific acts, we are forced to face the universality of just how human it is to exert one"s power over another individual, class or otherwise defined group of individuals. What is most frightening, though, is the suggestion that it is not simply a social issue: Each of us is capable of elevating our own self through the taking of someone else"s power or rights. Humans are not always altruistic - even those who are seemingly so. And those of same-colored skin often oppress their own kind. Many writers and artists have responded to the work of Ali, noting the obvious: the tension between minorities and the races that would keep them down. Danzy Senna, novelist and teacher of creative writing and literature at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., writes: "Tonight we see it in the sky: just what happens to a dream deferred. A riot of colors. A calamity of signifiers. A confusion of signs." Indeed, the signs are confused here. This is Ali"s trademark - inviting us in for a closer look, as opposed to making the obvious visual comment. It is more difficult - and more telling - to look at what it is we fear in those we would oppress. Most often, though, the roots of prejudice can be traced to fear and/or denial of some unacceptable truth in oneself, a perceived darkness, perhaps, that we would rather attach to someone else. Laylah Ali, who, at the relatively young age of 34, has already exhibited her work in solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; MassMOCA, North Adams, Mass.; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco; and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, also has participated in Projects 75 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She has done what few artists do: examined age-old issues in a new way. Her work deserves recognition for its hard edges and careful coaxing. The artist doesn"t preach, but instead invites us into a world where we must ask questions, for if we don"t, we are not looking. First, though, we have to be willing to see. Sponsored by the IMA"s affiliate group the Contemporary Art Society, Laylah Ali, on view in the museum"s third floor Forefront 42 space, is up through Jan. 26. The artist will present a lecture on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. in the DeBoest Lecture Hall. Call 923-1331 for hours and information.