BY Mimi Chu in Fan Letter | 18 DEC 18
Featured in
Issue 200

The Electricity of Martine Syms’s Misdirected Kiss

‘You invite us to forge a ‘we’ with you and your images, to empathize, nodding snorts of identification brimming with tears’

BY Mimi Chu in Fan Letter | 18 DEC 18

Martine Syms, ‘Fact & Trouble’, 2016, exhibition view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Courtesy: the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Mark Blower

Casually seated at your MacBook Pro, you open the finder to your trove of media files. You open a vine by DisforDivinee (2011), hit play. A woman rushes her fingers through her twists and drawls: ‘So, I go to work and all the white ladies tell me how much they love my hair,’ brows raised mockingly, stretching her os, ‘sooo long!’ Cut to: ‘It’s MINE, I BOUGHT IT!!’, a sparkle of triumph in her exasperated eyes.

The vine loops. You mute and drag it onto a patchwork of windows – clips, screenshots, personal snapshots – collaged on your screen. African American actress Bertha Regustus performs in a 1907 gag film, Laughing Gas, collapsing into manic fits of laughter to the humour of her white supporting cast. Kayla Newman, known online as Peaches Monroee, preens her ‘eyebrows on fleek’ in a vine posted in 2014 that turned the phrase viral.

Set to perform for an impending audience, DisforDivinee, Regustus and Newman clown their emotions for, and back to, a white-dominated social order. Looking straight into the camera, a chorus on your screen, their images harmonize into a discordant cacophony. An image of Queen Latifah grins like a Madonna over your desktop with the caption ‘My Girls’. ‘Looking is a way of knowing,’ you explain, ‘and I see these girls.’

You pop open a photo of yourself as a preteen at T-Zone, a summer camp for girl empowerment run by supermodel Tyra Banks. You talk us through your ‘rules for presentation’, confessional self-coping mechanisms. ‘Lotion is for white girls – shea butter is the only defence.’ ‘Always read books with obfuscating titles.’ ‘Be scuffed.’

You deadpan your feelings of alienation and need for protection with ironic candour. You invite us to forge a ‘we’ with you and your images, to empathize, nodding snorts of identification brimming with tears. But we are too narrow and homogenous for your frame: a predominantly white, London art audience, watching your screen projected in a lecture theatre at the ICA, laughing weakly back. Martine Syms, this is a fan letter to a future when the art circuit is wide enough to carry the electrifying potential of your Misdirected Kiss.

Mimi Chu is assistant editor of frieze and is based in London, UK.