From beneath we look up at the image of Martine Syms pressing an apartment call button and apparently yelling. They have bright green braids and above them is a blue ceiling.

Issue 004 Summer 2022 Profiles

With Her Latest Film, Martine Syms Is Pursuing Pleasure

By Yume Murphy

Martine Syms, photographed by Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr.


The role of the artist has never been so fucked. 


In the world of today’s clout-erati, a dedicated cult of personality is seemingly essential for widespread celebration as an artist. Not intellect, ambition, or talent, but an obsession with oneself—a god complex even—has propelled many of today’s most talked-about figures in art and entertainment into mainstream virality. In an image-saturated and hyper-capitalist market, egomania has come to act as a marker of true genius. To be a creator is to be a god—Kanye’s self-proclaimed branding as Yeezus, a sort of equally dystopic and ultra-modern Black messiah, comes to mind. Still, there are few visionaries who possess a larger-than-life sense of self that feels well earned. Martine Syms is such a figure.

Syms brandishes herself as a “conceptual entrepreneur,”1 and her voice has always been, in her words, “clear as a fucking whistle.” Syms is an artist, a filmmaker, a poet, a technologist, a theorist, a trickster, a chaos connoisseur—and the list goes on. But most notably, she is someone who is deeply intuitive. As she works across a wide range of time-based media, Syms’s voice is easily the most distinguishable aspect of her impressive volume of work and an impressive practice she maintains. For over a decade now, her signature blend of deadpan Black comedy and keen social critique has pulled from a rigorous theoretical lexicon. It has often taken form as cheeky, if not incisive, moving image work and photography. Her broader conceptual approaches to image making, meditative multimedia installations, sculpture, and discursive print and web publishing are all interested in how Black femme subjectivity, surveillance, and performance exist in time.


Martine Syms leans across two chairs, wearing a flowy cream colored dress and sporting bright green braids. They look at the camera directly.
Martine Syms, photographed by Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr.

Even more, she’s learned to trust this inner voice. In our emailed exchanges, she shares that she has “built [her] life around letting it resonate.” She tells me of how in recent years she’s taken vocal lessons to help her use her voice as a tool for healing and power. “I’m not afraid of what comes out of me,” she continues. “I can howl. I can croak. I can scream. I can sing a beautiful melody. It’s all me.” 

Now in her early thirties, the Los Angeles native is more playful than ever. Most recently, HelLA World, Syms’s Prada Mode Los Angeles installation at Genghis Cohen, exemplified this blend of jest, mischief, and indulgence.2 The immersive and interactive installation presented a pop-up bar, cafe, and display shelves of various art publications, likely courtesy of Syms’s publishing imprint, Dominica. Live video feeds and text displays reflected on the surveillant and social forces at play in a party.3 Syms’s 2021 collaboration with French fashion label Études also bears a striking resemblance to her HelLA World presentationboth projects luxuriate in the color purple, for which Syms has an affinity.4 “My specialties are modern comedy, the color purple, and strategic swearing,” she explains. There is a level of taste, pleasure, and play that is deeply embedded in her recent work. This is never more pronounced than in The African Desperate (2022), Syms’s debut feature, which made its premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and has since closed out the fifty-first edition of MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films.5 

With a drug-laced swagger and a predilection for absurdity, Syms presents us with The African Desperate, a cautionary tale of a Black woman artist escaping the ivory tower. The film chronicles the fictional Aquarius sculptor Palace Bryant—played by Syms’s longtime collaborator and friend Diamond Stingily—and her final frenetic hours as an MFA student at an unnamed school located in New York’s scenic Hudson Valley. What ensues is a surreal series of unfortunate events, softened only by a seasoning of earthly delights. 


Erin Leland and Diamond Stingily in The African Desperate (2022), dir. Martine Syms, courtesy of Dominica Inc.

Scored by Syms (under her production moniker Aunt Sister) alongside composers Colin Self and Ben Babbitt, the film opens with a scene that rises to a sonic barrage of glitchy and brash rings and melodious sighs—the aural backdrop for Palace’s final critique with her all-white professors. Visibly fed up and checked out, Palace barely entertains their out-of-touch and micro-aggressive missives regarding her work before toasting to her graduation. “What if there were actually no people in the work?” Palace’s professor, Rose (played by Syms’s gallerist Bridget Donahue), implores. “You mean, um, you mean Black people,” Palace responds, more than she asks. At a point, a variation of the Confused Black Girl meme flashes onto the screen.6  Eventually, the film’s title card appears, its font reminiscent of gaming arcades, while heavy bass resounds the incredulity of the preceding scene. This opening sets the stage for the kind of mental slavery Palace is tasked with resisting, and what Syms describes as “the artist’s relationship to reality, to truth, to rendering experience.”7 

In the film, particularly enduring scenarios are met with indulgences: a trip to the lake accompanied with fresh fruit and locally brewed kombucha, a drop or three of psilocybin, alcohol, hella weed, an unplanned appearance at Palace’s graduation party, ketamine, juvenile make-outs, and later, kinky play. Throughout, references to influential artistic and literary texts offer Palace defense from racist and diminutive slights, if not offering a laugh. Still, for every mention of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, and the work of Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter, to name a few, Palace finds ultimate solace in her desire, often at her own detriment. After all, The African Desperate was made for people who like good shit, for lovers of the cinema, for quiet sexy types, for real heads, for people who like to have fun, and for people with impeccable taste,” Syms tells me. Still, Palace’s interest in indie fuckboy Evan, played by Aaron Bobrow, comes at the cost of not only her plans to leave the ivory tower on a timely schedule but also her pride. Her desire to be liked and accepted among her peers jeopardizes her immediate wellbeing as she partakes in a seemingly impossible cocktail of drugs. How is a girl to have fun when all her vices seek her compromise? 


Diamond Stingily in The African Desperate (2022), dir. Martine Syms, courtesy of Dominica Inc.

To survive, Palace must contain multitudes. And does Diamond Stingily provide for a nuanced performance . . . Lush, sexy, and chaotic, Stingily’s take on Palace is equally emphatic and endearing. The artist’s portrayal of her character is rather freaky and bold, introverted yet attention-seeking, all the while being impossibly cool. She prances across the quaint Hudson Valley town fitted in a floral muumuu, Fanta Orange hair, and black Air Force Ones, replete with her signature wine-colored lip. From scene to scene, we’re given a deep awareness of Palace’s own inner workings as Stingily successfully imbues each scene with differing levels of comfort, tone, and energy. With her friend Hannah (Erin Leland), Palace is defiant and chilled, while with a group of peers, the MFA grad is rather guarded. Palace is showing in the Venice Biennale but at some point reveals she doesn’t even know if she plans to attend. Her performance is rhizomatic. 

Presumptively, Syms, who completed her own MFA at Bard College, where The African Desperate was filmed, shares a lot in common with the fictional Palace. For one, they’re both artists who recognize the value of a good lie. But Syms maintains that the film isn’t necessarily an autobiography: “The Palace character is based on Diamond as much as me. My co-writer Rocket Caleshu also went to an MFA program, and we’ve used anecdotes from our friends too.” Instead, she reveals that the role was practically written for Stingily. “I asked her if she’d star in a movie if I wrote one for her,” Syms says. This level of collaboration underscores how this story came to be. Syms very carefully assembled her dream team, which includes past collaborators Vic Brooks, cinematographer Daisy Zhou, and longtime friends Lana Kim and Jett Steiger to produce the film. “It’s a continuation of all of the work I’ve been doing over the past decade. It poured out of me because I had to talk my shit,” she says. “I had a story to tell. I knew how to tell it.” 

 


Martine Syms, photographed by Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr.

The African Desperate is about the role and creation of an artist as much as it’s a story about the disembodiment that comes with being regarded as such. Palace is an enviable icon and, for that exact reason, a very lonely one. Repeatedly surrounded by a harem of friends who act more like fans, Palace ends up alone and unsupported. Unsurprisingly, Syms’s career has similarly amassed a cult following of many Black and femme and queer admirers as she’s emerged at a unique meeting place of art, fashion, and new media circles. There is quite simply no format or genre Syms won’t dabble in. Her practice is boundless—and for that, so is Syms. 


Footnotes:

1. Syms coined the term “conceptual entrepreneur” to define her practice in 2007. She has since explained that the term, which describes how ideas are both central to and create value for artistic work, is in direct reference to Sol Lewitt’s essay “Notes on Conceptual Art” rather than the invoked startup economies.

2.  Prada Mode is a traveling social club with a focus on contemporary culture. Syms’s HelLA World installation was featured in its seventh iteration.

3. For HelLa World, Syms invited guests to text bits of information (gossip) to appear on text displays.

4. The Études x Martine Syms collaboration consists of a capsule clothing collection and a short movie exploring reality and the virtual world.

5. Syms directed her first feature-length documentary, The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, in 2015 for KCET.

6. The Confused Black Girl meme has seen countless iterations circulate on the internet as an incredulous reaction image. The use of (Black) memes in popular culture is discussed as a site of mass digital appropriation and exploitation by Aria Dean in “Poor Meme, Rich Meme,” Real Life, July 25, 2016, https://reallifemag.com/poor-meme-rich-meme/

7. “Mental slavery” is a term coined and heavily discussed by prominent pan-Africanist, Black nationalist, and activist Marcus Garvey.