Martine Syms’s Portrait of Art School Alienation

Martine Syms’s Portrait of Art School Alienation

Martine Syms’s Portrait of Art School Alienation

With her feature film The African Desperate, the visual artist delves into the social and intellectual pitfalls of the MFA experience.


The African Desperate begins at the end: We meet Palace Bryant at the final in-studio critique of her MFA program. The crit is exactly what you might expect in a film about a tall, tattooed Black woman marooned at a liberal arts college in upstate New York: as equally unctuous as it is pathologizing. “You’re afraid of your own appetite. I see it. It’s all a bit polite, isn’t it?” an instructor named “M,” played by the artist A.L. Steiner, remarks at one point. What’s not quite as expected is that the camera doesn’t just cut away after Palace ushers the last of the tribunal out of her studio space. Instead, it lingers with her. It watches her toss back the wine she’d set out for them and captures the tear racing down her cheek as she nervously rolls a joint. “I like to show the stuff that we don’t see a lot,” the film’s director, Martine Syms, told me on a recent afternoon.

The film is filled with the kind of cultural detritus we don’t often see in a feature film: unadulterated art school–speak, a full YouTube–style makeup tutorial, a frenetic superimposition of memes, and molly water. In making The African Desperate, Syms said, she was interested in “the mundane as a kind of dynamic space.” The drama in mundanity is central to the campus experience, but Syms’s art school satire is also after something more: the hollowness of an intellectual space that rewards tokenizing, incentivizes careerism, and fetishizes the elite world that it purports to critique. She and her cowriter, Rocket Caleshu, both attended MFA programs in the past decade—Syms at Bard and Caleshu in the CalArts writing program. In The African Desperate, the pair explore the unique mix of emotions that such experiences can occasion to unexpected, prismatic, and comedic ends.

Of particular interest is alienation. Palace is an island within an island—the lone Black woman hemmed in by a cohort of infantile, insecure, and oblivious peers. Because the school observes a low-residency model, wherein graduate students are required to be on campus only during the summer months, the group ambles around a barren campus making art, reading theory, and going for swims in the lake. It’s an atmosphere whose bucolic serenity is muddled only by the subtle yet unshakable impression that Palace is in a state of utter malaise.

The African Desperate lives in this incongruity. The film condenses the last 24 hours of Palace’s art school life into an ambling 99-minute journey. It takes us from the deflating anticlimax of the last crit, through the drug-filled bacchanalia of the final party, to the somber, contemplative, and hung-over journey home. Within this window, we see how the program, for Palace, is simultaneously an oasis and a purgatory. She is the prized pupil, but only among those who seem to covet or envy the idea of her: a working-class, Black female artist who has successfully infiltrated the elite art world. She has the time and the space to make work and indulge in lakeside picnics, but she can never quite escape the uncanny and occasionally painful awareness that the world she occupies is at a distinct remove from most other parts of her life. “There’s a lot of stuff in life that I think is bigger than art, you know what I mean?” she says to her roommate, Hannah, early in the film, after revealing that she’ll be returning home to Chicago to take care of her mother, who is suffering from lupus. “People here are like, ‘This is it, this is your life.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that ain’t! This ain’t life. If you think it is, I ain’t know what to tell you.’”

Syms and Caleshu take pains to show us how this circumscribed, intellectual space both is and isn’t Palace’s life, how through her talent, ambition, and active choice, she has indeed become studio mates, frenemies, even bedfellows with the MFA milieu and its greater art world extension. Crucially, however, this has not resulted in a smooth acculturation. Rather, the sentiment that this arrangement has produced within her is a fitful attraction/repulsion. Palace’s three summers in this pastoral art commune have bred an intense entanglement with and alienation from both her peers and, to some extent, herself.

Well, I didn’t pitch to anyone like, ‘I wanna make a movie about being depressed,’ but that was always kind of in my head,” Syms explained. Nestled amid recitations from the writings of Fred Moten—the American poet and theorist whose essay collection The Undercommons became a grad school touchstone during the late 2010s (the period in which the film is set)—and summer afternoon dips, the film’s prevailing mood is one of despair. As Palace, Diamond Stingily plays this note with a fine touch, utilizing her pouty visage and bone-dry deadpan to an alternately hilarious and heart-rending effect. For her, being sad isn’t a collapse onto the Victorian fainting couch; it’s colorfully erratic, aimless, and impulsive. One moment she’s reflecting matter-of-factly about her mother’s chronic illness, the next she’s at her friend’s studio licking psychedelic drugs off the back of her hand. In one scene, she’s demure in front of her crush, Ezra; “Fuck me or you’re racist,” she commands him in another. “Depression is different for everyone, I assume, but for myself, some things about it are really funny,” Syms reflected. “I’ve been brought to tears by not being able to sub out a fruit in a smoothie order before, you know what I mean? It’s fucking ridiculous, but it’s still happening to you.”

Forming this complex chord—of the ecstatic, the tragic, and the often comical space where the two meet—has become a hallmark of Syms’s art practice, which encompasses photography, experimental video, live performance, a music project called Aunt Sister, and the small press Dominica Publishing. In a 2016 video piece titled “Laughing Gas,” from her semi-autobiographical sitcom series She Mad, a fictional version of Syms goes to the dentist to have a wisdom tooth removed. When she wakes up, the dentist informs her that her insurance won’t cover the procedure and that she’ll have to pay the $1,700 out-of-pocket. Partly delirious from the anesthetic and partly in shock, Syms stands up,, walks out of the office without paying, gets on a bus, and rides home laughing hysterically.

Like some of Whit Stillman’s upper-crust parlor comedies or Noah Baumbach’s melancholy post-grad drama Kicking and Screaming, which Syms cited as a touchpoint for her film, The African Desperate can feel at times like it’s speaking in its own peculiar vernacular, rooted as it is in the cloistered experience of a rarefied class. However, in lieu of direct parody, Syms took a more refracted approach: “I’m not into naturalism, actually. My director binder that I carried everywhere said ‘FUCK REALISM’ on it because I was more interested in [communicating] the way something feels or the affect than it being what something’s actually like.” The feeling that Syms and Caleshu most fervently tried to capture through their spare, off-kilter dialogue was the particular uncanniness of relationships developed in a small-art-school context. “There is a cognitive dissonance to being there,” Caleshu explained. Palace has “been with [her classmates] for three summers, making work and doing this intense thing that from the outside looks kind of pointless…. There’s an awkwardness inherent in those interactions.” If the tenor, the stakes, and even the subjects of Palace’s exchanges with others occasionally feel unclear, it’s because, to some extent, they are.

For Caleshu, writing the characters in this slightly skewed way allowed the film “to kind of enter a portal.” We fall headfirst into that portal in the film’s second act, where after spending the entire day proclaiming that she has no interest in attending the graduation party she was apparently scheduled to DJ, Palace caves in and shows up. To amplify her experience, or perhaps simply to endure it, she ingests a small army of drugs. As she floats from room to cavernous room in the impressively empty party, what previously seemed like vapid exchanges with her classmates take on a new, bizarro color. A friend glibly offers to introduce her to his New York gallerist as she slowly dissociates on his couch. A sycophantic professor asks her if she’s “ever heard of Lil Uzi Vert” as she staggers across the dance floor. At the height of her trip, the people she encounters literally take on a chromatic glow, a kind of K-hole aura portrait. The party has been transformed into an art school house of horrors, with a new terror waiting around each corner. Palace, the film seems to say, must walk this gauntlet before she can be set free. As one might expect, she doesn’t escape unscathed.

“A lot of movies, if they’re going to show the last day of something, they might end at the graduation,” Syms said of the film’s narrative conceit. “But I wanted to start at that point, because when you’re in those moments in life, usually they feel sort of anticlimactic…. It empties out really fast.” The African Desperate could be thought of as one long emptying-out, a gradual summoning to the surface and draining of long-gestating toxins. The film’s emotional apex—a contentious, erotic, and ultimately unfulfilling exchange between Palace and Ezra the morning after her bender—plays less like the consummation of pent-up desire than a cathartic release of simmering anger, bitterness, and longing. It’s not the triumphant, transformative moment you might hope it would be; it’s more like a purging. Later that morning, as Palace finally boards the plane home for Chicago, she vomits for good measure.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy