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Martine Syms' directorial debut, The African Desperate (2022), which premiered on 30 April at MoMA's New Directors/New Films festival, New York, is 100 minutes of pure visual joy.

Martine Syms Takes the Art School to Task

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

The film unfolds as a day in the life of lead protagonist Palace Bryant, as she is about to graduate from an MFA programme on a lush green and permanently sunny campus somewhere in upstate New York.

Bryant is played by the incredibly talented artist Diamond Stingily, who, off-screen is known for using readymade materials, including wood doors, chains, and synthetic hair in works commenting on systemic racial injustice in the United States, and her personal experiences.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

Stingily's experience and interest feed into the opening scene with an uncomfortable, yet familiar real-world experience that Black, Indigenous, and P.O.C. art students can encounter within educational establishments that are predominantly white-led.

Syms deftly presents us with a journey through Bryant's surreal, hilarious, satirical, and dead-pan delivery of conflicting thoughts, emotion, longing, and escapism.

There is a passive aggressive exchange in Bryant's final assessment at this fictive art school, conducted by an all-white panel, its accrual set at Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, where Syms studied for her MFA.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

Four tutors all seem to project on varying scales their thoughts on the works in Bryant's degree show—mixed-media sculptures mostly, while offering insights, or rather flashbacks, to their engagement with her work as it was developed during the programme.

One of the assessors seems to be out of his depth with Bryant, and is overcompensatingly positive; another, self-absorbed, while a third, who is the closest to offering an actual critique, remarks that Blackness clearly influences the work, but the artist is limiting herself by reconceptualising the latter, as if identity politics has no place in art.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

In this scene, there is also a reference to kanekalon, a modacrylic fibre used to make synthetic hair extensions, introduced in 1957—a material Stingily often uses in her artworks. In the film, the artist is asked how it was sourced.

As with the wider use of satire, parody, and sarcasm to dismantle fallacies and falsehoods in her practice, here, Syms takes to task the art school experience.

This progresses into a pass for the young artist: freedom entwined with a feeling of defeat and unravelling. It sets the tone for what unfolds as a vignette of all the other characters, students and staff alike, from whom Bryant tries to escape. Our protagonist wants to return home to Chicago and the familiar, which she does eventually.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

Syms deftly presents us with a journey through Bryant's surreal, hilarious, satirical, and dead-pan delivery of conflicting thoughts, emotion, longing, and escapism. She expertly captures the days of collapse into hallucinogenic, self-medicated spirals permeated by exhaustion and seeming unable to care for oneself, even in supposedly safe and experimental spaces—or art school.

Stingily as Palace Bryant is utterly captivating and owns this film throughout. She holds viewers' attention as she moves between frames of sadness (post-crit frustration and anger about the experience she went through) to shy-awkward attempts to get with the man she has a crush on, which never happens.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

After nights of drinking and drug-taking, there is a rom com-like scene in which he (Ezra) finally appears to care for her. Ezra rescues a passed-out Palace into her car and falls asleep in the passenger seat.

He relays the events to her when she wakes up. To which she responds: 'You think you're so special. I'm the one who's special,' before booting him from the car—realising, he wasn't worth it.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min.

Martine Syms, The African Desperate (2022) (still). 99 min. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ and Dominica, Inc.

As with the wider use of satire, parody, and sarcasm to dismantle fallacies and falsehoods in her practice, here, Syms takes to task the art school experience with its many contradictions and power dynamics.

Viewers are reminded that revelry and revile come together in a world—in this case, an art world and education—promising respite, despite reinforcing the very structures it claims to dismantle. —[O]

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