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The African Desperate


Emoji summary: 🤠 🌫 🏛

The three years I spent at St Martins were the weirdest three years of my life. I look back at art school like it was a fever dream. The way dreams feel like they’re happening to you, but not you yourself - you’re someone else entirely. You slip in and out of your body at the same time. Art schools are crazy sitcom institutions. I think that’s the point of them. That slippage of self; where you’re in and out of body as vehicle. The more I think about it all, the more I am convinced that the slippage was the entire point. Grab these kids and whack them in a blender. Pull them out of the context of their families and homes and their normal everyday lives. Make them question everything. Make them feel like they’re in outer space, on a reality show, nono, wait… a daytime TV game show. But there are no rules. Or they don’t know the rules yet. Just make them feel like the normal laws of physics don’t actually apply. See what they make when they’re in this headspace, off the rails in orbit and unhinged! It’ll probably be terrible. But it’ll probably also be great. That’s educational. That’s how you learn how to be a person - or at least, that’s how I began learning how to be a person. I should clarify: I am very pro-art school. Yes, art schools are institutions and normally I flinch at the idea of anything remotely approaching an institution. But I am glad I went, I think. I am glad I had my normal torn away from me, I am glad I had three years to watch my world collapse around me while I questioned everything. I’m glad I had space to fumble for attempts at an answer. I believe in the transformational power of any process that overhauls your worldview. I think art school is one of those things: process. Art school might be a verb, an action that is done to you. It’s a conditioning. A coating. A full head to toe body spray that you shimmy through, mist, emerge on the other side of like a drive-thru car wash. I’m only half-joking.

Considering the way art schools embed the need to question and truly inspect things, the endless emphasis on criticality and reflection, the experience of art school is not extensively looked at as a subject itself. At least, not as extensively as you might think it’d be. It gets to slide on past while we look at the rest of the world with our big juicy artist brains. Meanwhile, these institutions coat us with their shiny paint. We emerge, changed. Or if not changed, then at least glazed from this mist we’ve just shimmied through.

The African Desperate is a film about an art student. Palace Bryant is just about to graduate from her MFA at an art school in upstate New York. The film was directed by Martine Syms, Palace is played by Diamond Stingily, and IRL they’re both actual established artists operating at the upper end of the art world. Blue chip commercial galleries, art fairs, the lot. The film is streaming exclusively on MUBI now. We follow Palace on the last 24hours of her MFA. It opens with her final crit, slides through the end of term party, and we leave with Palace as she arrives back home in Chicago. It is a film that bridges a weird time. It opens at an end point // ends at a beginning and we are there to witness the overlap. Liminality! Transition! Messy spillage from phase to phase. That’s where stories get made (at least the stories I am interested in hearing). Palace is shifting gears, that moment when you’re running and both feet are off the ground (a split second). Barely visible but weightless.

Palace’s experience of art school is… specific. I mean, everyone’s experience is specific - but we are seeing things that Palace is privy to. And that is… The way a white institution buckles under the weight of its own whiteness, the way it handles Palace. But also, the way Palace shifts under the lights and falls through these spaces. Palace is a Black woman and Institutionally Racist feels like a big term - so vague and baggy. It sounds abstract or enormous - a HYPEROBJECT (l m a o) an entity so vast that it bamboozles traditional ideas about what it even is in the first place. But institutions are just groups of people who have chosen to organise themselves in a particular way for a particular purpose. Institutions are just modes of governance and distribution. It’s not complicated to say: the way we experience an institution slides from the structural to the interpersonal - back and forth seamlessly. I say We because We all experience this sliding scale. But what We experience between the structural and the interpersonal is specific, it differs according to who We are.

Opening at an end point: Palace’s final crit is excruciating. One of her tutors has written an introduction to her work, which he reads aloud. It might as well be a newspaper horoscope or the auto-generated output of a text simulator. ‘Screenland is the underground and overlay for consciousness in Palace’s work, with consciousness understood as being made of multiple entry and exit points filled with voices and their shapes, exerting and relieving pressure on that question of how to live in all kinds of amazing and fucked up ways.’ It might be a touching emotional moment, if it weren’t for the fact that the introduction is more about affirming the tutor’s position as a Guy That Gets It (whatever It actually is). Another tutor quotes Fred Moten at her, then Glissant, and Glissant again. Heavy theory that Palace already understands, so when this tutor gets the meaning or application a bit twisted, it becomes deeply awkward. I can’t tell if there’s something stressful happening with the tutor’s repeated citation of Black theorists to a Black student. It doesn’t dwell on that stress though. The theory is only a relational tool, a way for the second tutor to attempt to relate to the work or gain some kind of proximity (understanding). ’You’re scared of your own appetite,’ she says, diagnosing Palace. A third tutor repeatedly congratulates her on everything she has achieved over the past three years. He’s polite but insincere. He’s being patronising. The repetition makes the praise feel functional and hollow, like he’s saying it just to have something to say. In moments like this, across the scene of the crit, the script feels like a perfect tight and absolute thing. It’s easy to forget that this is fiction and someone (Martine) has written it, these people don’t actually exist (hahaha, or do they). The actual language of it all! It’s funny but painful, ultimately it’s very good satire because there’s a fundamental or inherent truth to what’s playing out on screen.

A fourth tutor, Rose, has got gripes. She says, ‘Everyone here goes easy on you. A lot of artists of your generation, of your race, female - are making work like you. Hunter-gatherer sculpture. Found materials. Appropriated photography.’ She gestures, mouth turning down at the edges, little shrug. ‘How are you going to differentiate yourself?’ Maybe Rose’s question seems neutral, out of context. It could be an innocent question. But all of Palace’s tutors are unable or unwilling to engage with her work. Some of them try to talk around it, at it - just never about it. In the end, they all just tell her things - a mixture of stuff that’s fucked up and non sequitur. Palace reads a quote from a book (Colette Thomas’ The Testament of the Dead Daughter): ‘drama is the representation of the world at its stop point’. The quote hangs in the air, sliding by unacknowledged. ‘Exactly, exactly,’ her tutors say, nodding wisely. They continue talking about what they actually want to talk about - which is secretly, lowkey, Palace. ‘Where did you grow up? West Side Chicago?’ Rose asks. She’s not really asking, though. She knows where Palace grew up. She’s just trying to open up an avenue of questioning that is more directly about —— well… They cannot grapple with her work, they can only see her. Their insistence on reading Palace’s work through her: her identity, her subjecthood, the very fact of her as a person in front of them - that’s interesting and illustrative. Because by only seeing her, not her work, they also refuse to see her as an artist. Their evasive engagement with her work is a refusal to handle it as an artwork. It’s obviously racist. But it’s trite to leave it at that, like racism is the bottom of that interaction. In this excruciating crit scene, we see a finely tuned demonstration of what happens, how it happens, and - if we pay very close attention - we kind of see why.

(They don’t understand Palace’s work because they don’t really understand Palace. It’s a weird and interesting dynamic where they miss the point of the work and focus in on the artist, but in doing so, they are confronted by their lack of understanding / lack of ability to understand on an interpersonal level as well as a professional or artistic level. I think fundamentally, they just don’t understand what she’s doing there, in the art school. They don’t treat her like an artist because they don’t really see her as one. They don’t believe in her ability to make things about anything other than herself, because critical distance is a confidence trick. It doesn’t really exist, but you’ve got to make people believe it’s there. And they don’t believe it! She isn’t extended the same grace or generosity that I imagine they extend to other students. Rose’s questioning makes me think: she sees her inability to understand Palace’s work as a failure that belongs to Palace - rather than being an empathetic failure on Rose’s own behalf. All of these things are guesses at motivation - the fundamental point is that Palace is presented to us as a lonely figure. She is misunderstood. She is alone and singular and isolated, even if it is a conceptual isolation.

Palace is adamant: she’s not going to the end of term party. ‘I spent all summer with these fools. I’m done. Not another night.’ Of course, she goes to the party. She’s meant to be DJing, an email went out about it. She takes some drugs. Quite a lot, actually. As the night wears on, these little moments flag up - fully loaded. Portia (a white woman) yells ‘I HATE white women!!!’ sort of unprompted. It’s just a declaration, something she must externalise. Palace cannot find a single person who has an Android charger. The students dance to oontz oontz music with wild limbs, off beat, completely seriously. Everyone holds each other at a kind of academic distance. They’re friends! And they declare their undying love for each other! But it’s only ever just that: a declaration, something they must externalise. It is told rather than shown. Palace staggers through the party, increasingly fucked up by the mix of substances. Her vision starts splitting and lights blur and the world becomes hazy. I read an interview where Martine Syms says the drugs are a portal. ‘They collapse and create dimensions. Palace is on a hero’s journey, and all hero’s journeys have to venture to the underworld.’ But if they’re a portal, I am not entirely sure how to describe what’s on the other side. Because Palace emerges and she is different. She is coated in a shiny shimmery mist - art school has changed her.

Through the film, a character called Ezra pops up at these jarring and inopportune moments. He’s introduced to us as Palace’s crush; a lanky white art boy with an awkward haircut and terrible social skills. He’s boring, irritating, I completely understand Palace’s attraction to him. At the very beginning, before the crit, he walks past Palace’s studio. He stands in the doorway and waves, silently smiles, moves on. He calls Palace before the party, urging her to come. ‘But I thought we were going to hang out[?]’ - this could be a question, an invitation or an expression of disappointment. I can’t tell if it is one, all or none. He delivers the line flat, confused. At the party, Jai Paul’s Jasmine starts playing (a universal sexy bop) and Palace and Ezra dance slow. He lures her out into a quiet hallway, saying, ‘we never did a studio visit. Let’s do a studio visit now!’ They kiss, fumble, Ezra attempts to make a move but it’s so ambiguous that Palace misses it. Ezra returns at the end of the night, when Palace is collapsed face down in the school car park, only inches away from her car. He scoops her up and puts her in the driver’s seat. When she wakes up the next morning, he is sat in the passenger seat and staring at her.

I think if Palace snaps, if she changes or emerges on the other side of the portal - it’s here. She has emerged from the drug haze portal with a different attitude to the nonsense of it all. When Ezra gives her the same low energy, ambiguous attention, she rolls her eyes. ‘Honestly Ezra, you’ve been pissing me off all Summer.’ He makes flimsy justifications, but Palace isn’t hearing it. ‘Fuck me or get out the car, Ezra.’ She starts insulting him and he just takes it, and all of a sudden - Palace is powerful. ‘Fuck me or you’re racist.’ She’s laughing at him. She doesn’t take him seriously. She doesn’t care! But it’s a different not-caring to the not-caring at the beginning of the film. In the crit, Palace didn’t care in a silent, passive way. She was unwilling to fight for herself, or maybe she was unable to? Things happened to her and the only thing she could control was her own lack of reaction. But in the car with Ezra, things are different. She has changed. She straddles Ezra, makes him count out her fingers; 3-4-5. She then puts her entire hand in his mouth until he gags. She slaps him, makes him bark like a dog. Then she tells him to get out of her car.

It’s funny! It made me laugh a lot! But it’s also this serious shift in Palace’s attitude. She doesn’t care - but she’s also Done. Not-caring means she can do what she likes, instead of just having things happen to her. And it’s interesting: the way art school is an experience that happens to you, until all of a sudden it doesn’t any more. One day you just find yourself being different, you find that something inside you has snapped - you have changed. You have this internal resistance that wasn’t there before, but it has been forged by the consistent process, eroding away, waiting for that part of you to snap. It’s like art school wants us to fight it, and often we only figure out that we can fight just as we’re about to leave.

It’s a subtle shift. Part of me feels like I’m reaching or projecting, but I think the shift is there. Art school is a lonely place! It never stops being lonely for Palace. She bounces from studio to summer rental to her car to her friend’s house —- The distance that her peers and tutors handle her at is still there at the end: she’s kind of revered and reviled simultaneously. It’s almost indistinguishable from the academic distance everyone else has from each other, but it’s palpable at specific times. But if art school is a lonely place, it’s a productive kind of loneliness. Palace belongs there. Not just because, ‘oh, why shouldn’t she!’ - that’s patronising. Palace belongs there because she has been changed. She has the shiny shimmery art school coating, she has been transformed by the institution too. This is what it looks like on her. She has emerged from the portal with her new attitude, she’s done with tiptoeing around the idea that her place there is precarious. She has power! She can DO things! Isn’t that beautiful? Palace is leaving the school but she’s also not really leaving for good. The rest of the art world is waiting for her and that whole circus is more of the same. She’s in the Venice Biennale, she’s booked and busy, she’s going to be ok. So maybe it’s not lonely in a sad way. Maybe Palace is just free, and with that freedom comes a kind of loneliness (of being changed by the spaces you’ve passed through, of looking after yourself, of fighting, of being special or distinct!) If Palace is lonely, it’s because it’s a requirement. Palace is the Hero.

The film ends with Palace wheeling three suitcases through a train station. She’s Palace Bryant, she’s going to be ok! Throughout the film, Diamond Stingily presents Palace to us like she’s this reactive sprite, cheeky and nonchalant, The Hero. As the film ends, Palace is full of a restless energy but we don’t ever find out where that energy goes. Good. I don’t want to know. I can probably guess or hope (art world success, a dazzling career). I think the African Desperate is a film that sees art schools for what they are, for what they do and how they work (on us, towards us). I think it is clever, emotional and true. I think it is perfect and genius and very fucking funny. We spend precious years of our lives in these spaces, art schools literally make us (most of us - because art schools are still seen and treated like a requirement for access into the art world). And it’s interesting! The way We fall through these spaces, the way We belong in them, the way they chew us up but We have no alternative but to fling ourselves through them all the same. And I think it’s a good thing, but it’s also a sad thing. Before she leaves, Palace rests her head on her friend Hannah’s lap. She says ‘I died last night. I might still be dead.’ She’s being flippant but it’s also completely the entire point. In learning to fight, in being changed by this portal process mist coating - we die. Our outlooks shift! And the people we were before disappear! So, we die! We could still be dead! Art school was a verb that happened to me and, for my part, I am so so glad I died. It is where I began learning how to be a person. But if we are transformed by the institutions we pass through, we should pay very close attention to the coating, the way we emerge from these portals covered, head to toe and lacquered.

Martine Syms' THE AFRICAN DESPERATE is streaming exclusively on MUBI now. Get 30 days free.

This text was commissioned by MUBI, and as usual, you can check our accounts to see what jobs we do & how much we are paid for them. We are gonna follow this up with a podcast discussing people’s art school experiences so keep ya eyes peeled over on instagram. But if you wana get in there early, you can anonymously tell us the weirdest thing that happened to you in art school here. & if you read this far !! The lil emoji is: 🤠 the cowboy, bc I think it sums up the loneliness and power discussed in the text. Powerful lonely cowboys ah - drop it in the IG comments / reply to the tweet / lmk if you think there’s a better, more fitting emoji that I have overlooked!