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Martine Syms’ new film exposes the inbuilt racism of art school

The artist and filmmaker on ghostwriting for Kanye and her directorial debut, The African Desperate: ‘it’s like Superbad with less friends, less budget, and no white guys’

The title of Martine Syms’ debut feature is a test to see how the viewer reacts – or if they react at all. A deliberately anticlimactic comedy satirising the art world, The African Desperate starts with an MFA review where a Black sculptor, Palace (Diamond Stingily), is sat in front of four patronising white professors. Out of nervousness, Palace accidentally refers to “the African desperate” instead of “the African diaspora”, which produces zero response from the unblinking panel. “Palace is trying to sound so smart and then she messes up,” Syms explains. “But the people aren’t listening anyway.”

Syms, 34, loosely based The African Desperate on her own experience graduating from Bard College in 2017. Palace, to the disbelief of white people around her, has an installation at Venice Biennale; Syms, in 2017, became one of only two Black women to ever open a solo exhibition at MoMA. On her last day as an MFA student, Palace plans to boycott the campus party but then relents when tempted by drugs and a cute guy; Syms, too, underwent a similar dilemma. However, the title came from Stingily, who produced the Freudian slip twice in a phone call with Syms. To Syms’ delight, I tell her that the title makes me anxious whenever I type it. “It’s evocative,” she says, grinning, “and it’s provocative as well.”

The African Desperate unfolds over 24 hours, detailing the lead-up to the party, the ketamine-heavy antics of the night itself, and the hungover portions that follow. All sections are filled with an existential dread that is capitalised by Stingily’s deadpan delivery (“this is very Cruel Intentions”). In a little life-imitates-art-about-art, I meet Syms during the London Film Festival the morning after we both attended the same late-night party.

A few years ago, Syms published “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto”, a plea for “no Martians”, “no interstellar travel”, and “no inexplicable end to racism” in sci-fi. Is The African Desperate a “mundane” version of 24-hour comedies? “Maybe,” Syms says. “I tried to keep these interstitial moments that aren’t normally in a film, like someone rolling a joint. Friday was an influence. And that one with Michael Cera and Jonah Hill.” So she’s made Superbad minus the core friendship? “This is like Superbad with less friends, less budget, and no white guys!”

Syms is such a respected, experienced figure in the art world, it seems false to call her a first-time feature filmmaker. She’s had solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern; she’s created movies that played exclusively at art galleries, thus forgoing IMDb pages; at MCA Chicago until February 2023, visitors can watch Syms star in her own sitcom, She Mad. Syms also, according to the press kit, wrote for Kanye West. Is this really true?

“No one’s asked me about it!” Syms exclaims. “I worked with [Kanye] on his VMAs speech. I ghostwrote that speech. This was 2015.” So she didn’t ghostwrite his tweets from last week? “Yeah. Don’t say it’s recent,” Syms was hired by a creative agency, Perron-Roettinger, whom she used to work for full-time. “They brought me on because I knew his voice really well. Basically, we spent a day together, working on the speech, and working on the VMAs… I’ve seen him a bunch of times since then. I sometimes go to Fashion Church – which is what I call Sunday Service.” Would she do a movie with Kanye? “I would be interested, but I think it would maybe be difficult. I don’t know how much he likes Black women.” 

Like Syms’ gallery work which mixes high-brow and low-brow, The African Desperate is both a send-up of International Art English and has enough erect penises that streaming it on MUBI in a Starbucks will get you kicked out. “I couldn’t not have dick jokes,” Syms says. “That’s the Superbad in me.” With Syms describing her lengthy phone calls (so long, they’re “podcasts”) with Stingily, I ask if they see themselves as a Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David double-act. Whereas Seinfeld obsesses over restaurant etiquette, The African Desperate is more preoccupied with microaggressions?

“I like that,” Syms says. “It’s a comedy about depression. That was a secret joke. It wasn’t something I told anyone on set or in editing. I knew it. Diamond picked on it. Jerry Seinfeld’s an influence. I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I have a comedic sensibility, and that’s very much my voice. A few people in Q&As have been like, ‘Is that your coping mechanism?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, sure.’ And in the art world, I’ve had so many insane things said to me. I’m really interested in how people communicate or miscommunicate. When people say, ‘I want to do this,’ and they do the opposite.”

Is it worse in the art world? “Probably, because there’s a lot of narcissists and people-pleasers. I worked in music and fashion before. I’m used to that flamboyance.” Does she see herself as primarily an artist, or should the article call her a filmmaker? “I just say ‘artist’. If you’ve seen my exhibitions, it doesn’t feel like a huge departure. I make moving images in the art context as well. But if a big studio calls, I’m going to say I’m a director.”

“If you’re in a system that never planned for you to be there, how can you be indebted to it? That’s what I like about the art world: there’s less formality and rules. You can constantly reinvent what art is” – Martine Syms

Throughout The African Desperate, Syms inserts memes that flash up on the screen, or pop up in the corner, all as way to “capture the entire stream of images we see in a day”. She describes her journey to meet me: on her phone, she watched a YouTube video and checked out memes, while simultaneously navigating the real world. “I also think about how Black women, specifically, are used in GIFs on Twitter and Instagram,” Syms continues. “Black women’s expressions are used by all kinds of people. On Vine, it was eyebrows on fleek. Now it’s TikTok.”

So it’s sometimes digital blackface? “Often it is… It’s a paradox. It’s hypervisibility and invisibility, and how that exists simultaneously with Black Lives Matter – not the movement, but literally the value of Black women. Those things simultaneously exists when you’re using their creative output and their style. Hailey Bieber was getting roasted the other day for pretending she invented lipgloss and lipliner. Nail art has been a style trend for a long time. But as soon as Bella Hadid wears it, it’s high-fashion.”

As for whether the film industry is more racist than the art world, Syms says, “It’s all connected. Imperialism, capitalism, white supremacists, the patriarchy – it’s all connected. The value system exists, and I don’t feel beholden to it. Somebody asked me last week: how am I not indebted to Hollywood, especially growing up in Los Angeles? I responded by quoting ODB: there’s no father to my style.

“If you’re in a system that never planned for you to be there, how can you be indebted to it? That’s what I like about the art world: there’s less formality and rules. You can constantly reinvent what art is, and that’s what I’m bringing to the film world, too.”

As part of its ongoing partnership with the film distributor and movie streaming service MUBI, Dazed will host an exclusive preview screening of The African Desperate from 6pm on October 18 at the ICA. Martine Syms will also stick around to answer audience questions after the film.

Fancy it? Tickets are now available here for £6 (or £3 for Dazed Club members – learn more here). Tickets will also include drinks and a free goody bag.

Revisit the trailer for The AfricanDesperate, and see what else Dazed x MUBI Cinema Club has to offer, below.