Ali’s uniquely interrogative drawings address issues of race and power within contemporary culture but do so through the apparently simple form of cartoon-style gouache and ink drawings. She constructs narratives that at first seem to be in the realm of children’s heroes and villains, which, on closer inspection, reveal social and psychological tensions. Ali’s work is intimately connected to a trajectory of discussion in visual art concerned with racial dynamics, but she has developed an individual voice that is refreshingly disarming and free of didacticism. By developing an open-ended and complicated avenue of thought, she has advanced this discussion in an important way.
Ali’s visual language developed subtly but significantly during 1998-2001. From the domination-motivated groups depicted in the warring scenes of her early works have developed an increasingly fractured and isolated series of individual subjects acting alone or in smaller groups. Displaced body parts, clothing that references ecclesiastical uniform and objects or limbs that suggest saint’s attributes now appear like individual musical notes marking a strained, staccato rhythm. It is tempting to read the mass conflict depicted in the earlier Greenheads series as in some way documenting or correlating to the Civil Rights Movement. If we followed this narrative, reading it was possible to project that the horror and injury visible in the work were reflective of the scarring, battle-weary experience of fighting entrenched racism and the fractured political consciousness that followed in the wake of the events of the 1960s. But with Ali’s work, victors and vanquished, the powerful and the weak, remain purposefully hard to discern and such literal readings fall apart in the face of her deliberately ambiguous scenarios. The superficial simplicity of a first glance is further undermined by the careful attention to detail, such that the fragility of skin, the vulnerability of orifices and the sometimes subtle difference between a caress and a violent action can all be detected in Ali’s miniature-scale works.