After a string of closely watched exhibitions in New York, London, and elsewhere, Martine Syms, the Los Angeles–based artist and self-proclaimed “conceptual entrepreneur,” has mounted a solo show at the Graham Foundation in Chicago that solidifies her place at the forefront of critical explorations of Black femininity and the presence of Blackness in visual culture.
At the center of the exhibition, Syms’s first in the city where she earned her BFA, at the School of the Art Institute, is her debut feature-length film, Incense, Sweaters & Ice (2017), which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2017. The film follows Girl, a 20-something Black woman who embarks on a reverse migration from Los Angeles to St. Louis, Missouri, and Clarksdale, Mississippi, in search of opportunity as a nurse. Girl’s day-to-day life is intercut with scenes of Mrs. Queen Esther Bernetta White, an older Black woman who speaks directly to the viewer and gives lessons on how to conduct oneself properly.
The beginning of the film thrusts viewers into a club scene. Girl sways to the rhythm of the house music, her glittering fingernails flashing underneath the shining lights as she grins seductively and scans the crowded room. iMessages appear onscreen from WB (“whiteboy”), a new acquaintance that she interacts with mostly via text. Cut to Girl donning two Afro-puffs, jamming to Missy Elliott while driving through Los Angeles. The camera monitors her from the passenger seat. Cut to a dinner scene where Girl is in conversation with someone off-camera; she’s wearing a straight, black wig, and recounting the details of her day, pausing for responses the audience can’t hear. A purple card appears onscreen. Across the gallery, Queen Esther is in a long dress standing in a studio draped in a vibrant purple that floods onto the gallery walls and surrounds the viewer. The title of the film appears, which refers to goods produced in Syms’s hometown of Altadena, Los Angeles.
An intense interest in the way that Blackness is performed, absorbed, and circulated permeates Syms’s show in the Graham’s Prairie School-style Madlener House, which was built in 1902. The walls in the second-floor gallery feature a purple text painting that spells out different iterations of “GIRL,” a vernacular expression used by Black women as a mode of solidarity. Syms’s choice of purple, a signature in her practice, evokes a Black feminist tradition that purposely brings to mind Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work The Color Purple (1982). Also included are 12 photographic stills from the film’s production layered on vintage movie posters for classic Black films like The Slender Thread (1965), Truck Turner (1974), and Shaft (2000). The experience of viewing them is intensified by an augmented reality app, WYDRN, which allows viewers to access images from Syms’s family archive and a group-text chat with Girl’s friends, and that populates user’s screens with GIFS of Black women, creating a real-time, multimedia collage.
At the root of the film’s conception and presentation are the Great Migration, which saw millions of African-Americans leave the rural South for the urban North in search of a better quality of life between 1915 and 1970, and the impact it had on representations of Blackness in mass culture. In her 2005 book Migrating to the Movies, film scholar Jacqueline Najuma Stewart focuses on the correlation between this mass movement and the development of the film industry, and argues that “cinema functioned as a major site in which Black subjects could see and be seen in modern ways; it served as a contested discursive and physical space in which migrating Black public spheres were constructed and interpreted, empowered and suppressed.” Throughout this period, Black people began to appear onscreen, in the audience, and behind the camera. Restricted roles for Blackness were countered by fast-emerging urban realities. However, Black studies scholar Hazel V. Carby has explained that the movement of Black female migrants also created a moral panic among whites that characterized their behavior as socially dangerous and in need of being monitored.
Syms physically enacts the issue of migration in the formerly domestic venue by prompting viewers to move between three monitors to view her 72-minute feature. This movement induces a mild exhaustion that perhaps alludes to the severe conditions that Black Americans endured as forced migrants throughout the 20th century. One becomes more aware of oneself, traversing the gallery and trying to follow Syms’s prompts. Compiling footage captured via handheld camera, GoPro, and smartphone, she makes the viewer self-aware through various film techniques and by shifting the camera’s perspective to create the effect of surveillance. What results is a constant back and forth between watching, being watched, and remaining unseen.
Inspired by Syms’s own anxieties about modern-day surveillance, and adapted from a performance lecture entitled Misdirected Kiss (2015), her film merges familial, cultural, and historical influences that have guided the way she sees herself. She borrows elements from her family’s migratory history to create the protagonists in the film. Girl is loosely based on Syms’s mother, and Queen Esther is a fusion between the artist’s ultra-poised great Aunt Bernetta and Maxine Powell, the Motown etiquette instructor who provided the label’s talent with techniques for mainstream success. These women carried themselves as singular figures who, in their own ways, offered insights on how to navigate social realms filled with racism by possessing a certain bodily awareness.
While Queen commands attention through power stances and other dignified gestures, Girl follows her own rules, frequently changing her appearance and moving to the beat of her own drum. In one scene, we watch Girl get dressed for work in a hotel room. She stands in a bathroom completely nude, moisturizing her skin, and twisting her hair to apply prepare for a short, blond wig. The soundtrack to this scene is an up-tempo house beat that features audio of Syms’s own rules for self-preservation, including:
Never shave your armpit or pubic hair. This is still a sign of the resistance. . . Be scuffed. Visible tags, tears, holes, patches, embellishments, dirt and fixes are essential to your look. Never be too put together. . . Direct communication only.
The onscreen dynamic between Girl and Queen Esther reveals the degree to which respectability politics can be transmitted across generations.
Syms asserts that the history of surveillance on the Black body, from slavery to the present day, results in restrictive performances of self, and she uses the film to imagine the ways in which location and environment can delimit an individual’s behavior. Surveillance blurs the lines between being and acting. Syms pushes us to think about how culturally ingrained surveillance continues to shape the way that Black women maneuver public and private spaces, whether self-policing to minimize their presence or radically expanding to amplify it.