‘The African Desperate’ Expands the Movies’ Narrow View of the Art World

Most films set adjacent to studios and galleries lampoon unfathomable pretension, but Martine Syms takes a more nuanced approached in her look at art schools.

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By Nicolas Rapold

Martine Syms’s “The African Desperate” begins on the last day of art school for a Master of Fine Arts student named Palace. She’s facing the final critique from a committee of four instructors who sit in her studio, lobbing comments about her work — some earnest, some passive-aggressive, altogether a bit bewildering.

“It’s been interesting having you in the sculpture department.” “Where are you going to go with this?” “You’re afraid of your own appetite. It’s all a bit polite, isn’t it?” “Where’d you grow up? West Side Chicago?”

Palace — played by the artist Diamond Stingily, with bright orange hair and a deadly deadpan — holds her own. She calls out problematic questions, quoting Saidiya Hartman and others. Then, at a seemingly arbitrary moment, it’s all over: She passed.

“That’s it?” Palace asks quietly. “You’re free,” one examiner says, meaning well. But the comment also implies that art school wasn’t always liberating.

“The African Desperate” stakes out new terrain in the rarefied niche of movies featuring art schools. Unlike many films set adjacent to the art world, it focuses on a Black protagonist and avoids the cliché of “making it big” amid unfathomable pretension — a satirical staple of movies like “Velvet Buzzsaw,” “Pecker” and “The Square.”

Syms, a thriving artist who currently has multiple shows on, drew upon her time as an M.F.A. student at Bard College and years of teaching in universities and other settings. Syms remembers both feeling invisible and sticking out in white-dominated professional spaces at the upstate institution.

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