Martine Syms

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What Is My Work About?

My work is about the memories, myths, and histories that circulate within commercial culture. I recombine images and text to create new meaning. My recent projects consider the past (and future) in the present tense, to tell a different story about the social, institutional, and historical contexts in which blackness is framed.

Artist Statement

Writing is like drawing for me. Words are the first marks that I make towards an idea. It’s the way I become clear about what I know and what I’d like to know. Writing is the first step in my process of translating language to form. My work functions as an excursus from a primary text. I’ve included images from three recent projects, “Lessons,” “The Queen’s English,” and “Most Days.”

“Lessons” are an ongoing series of 30-sec videos that I refer to as “commercials.” The project began as a commission from the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) in conjunction with my lecture Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition, which used poet Kevin Young’s ideas as a framework. Each spot advertises a lesson I’ve learned from the tradition. Inspired by Fred Moten’s writings on the musical break, the videos apply his theory to the commercial break. The lessons resist the dominant logics of the cut, the figure, the voiceover, and the frame.

“The Queen’s English” was an exhibition and reading room at the Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena). Reenacting distributions of knowledge within the radical, black feminist community in the 1970s, “The Queen’s English” used text as image to form an intergenerational dialogue about language and representation. “Black Lesbian Caucus, Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, 1973” recast protest messages as commercial signage. “The Dedication pieces connect the words of each author to a new audience, while “For Nights Like This One, 1979,” a series of prints made collaboratively with photographer Cat Roif, suggest a fictional character and narrative that drew from the source materials that were also view. Modeled after JR Roberts’ 1981 book “Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography,” the first published collection of black lesbian literature, the project gathered a selection of pulp paperbacks, novels, biographies, and chapbooks from authors such as, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Pat Parker, Diane Bogus, and Red Jordan Arobateau, among many others.

Last year I wrote an editorial for titled the “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” that proposed a new direction for Afrofuturism in response to writer Greg Tate’s formulation that black life and science fiction are one and the same. “Most Days” is my initial contribution to the canon. It is an 18 minute table read of an original screenplay alongside a score composed by artist Neal Reinalda. The piece considers what an average day looks like for Chanel Washington, a young black woman in 2050 Los Angeles. It was released in May 2014 as a split 12” by Mixed Media Recordings (New York). The story uses repetition as a narrative device to ritualize the everyday. I’m attracted to Afrofuturism as a means of speculation and positing a different set of values to begin imagining the future, a future that is founded on realness. In addition to the record, I also created “Most Days Film Still,” in collaboration with Cat Roif, so the work could circulate within visual culture. I’ve also performed Most Days with actors at venues as diverse as an art fair, a university, and a music festival. The project gains meaning through the accumulation of each element—a vinyl record, a photographic print, a manifesto, and a performance.

The different modes of my practice form a circle of continuous activity driven by metaphysical code-switching.

I’m interdisciplinary, sometimes the designer, the writer, the filmmaker, the entrepreneur working across mediums towards a collapse of boundaries.

I take on whatever role I need to get my idea into the world. I create my own structures outside of established conventions. I work from the margins.
I privilege my ignorance. I think in public.

Langston Hughes said it this way:
I used to wonder
About here and there—
I think the distance
Is nowhere.



b. 1988 Los Angeles, CAEDUCATION
BFA, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, ILSELECTED EXHIBITIONS

“Lessons,” White Flag Projects, St. Louis, MO (forthcoming)
“S1:E1,” 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience, New Museum, New York, NY (forthcoming)

“Rhetoric,” Aran Cravey, Los Angeles, CA
“Speaking of People,” Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
“Another Cats Show,” 356 Mission, Los Angeles, CA
“Louie, Louie,” Human Resources, Los Angeles, CA
“META_MORPH_ISIS,” Black Paper, Los Angeles, CA
“The Queen’s English,” Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA
“Small New Films,” REDCAT, Los Angeles, CA
“Black Radical Imagination,” Cooper Union, New York, NY

“Reading Trayvon Martin,” First Look, New Museum, New York, NY
“gURLS,” Transfer Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
“Science Fiction…,” Actual Size, Los Angeles, CA

“Props,” Public Fiction, Los Angeles, CA
“First Among Equals,” Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA
“How to Download a Boyfriend,” Badlands Unlimited, Apple iTunes
“The Didactic Possibilities of Film Titles,” Acid Rain TV, New York, NY
“Mise-En-Scéne,” Young Art, Los Angeles, CA

“Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet,” New Museum, New York, NY
“We Are Here: Art & Design Out of Context,” MCA Chicago, Chicago, IL
“Three Card Monte,” Green Gallery, Milwaukee, WI


“Black Radical Imagination,” REDCAT, Los Angeles, CA
“Lessons of the Tradition,” Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
“Lessons of the Tradition,” Cornell Tech, New York, NY
“Lessons of the Tradition,” London College of Communications, London, UK
“Do You Follow? Art in Circulation,” Rhizome/ICA London, London, UK
“Lessons of the Tradition,” WMCFest, Cleveland, OH
“Black Vernacular,” Oberlin College & Observatory, Oberlin, OH
“Most Days,” Moogfest, Asheville, NC
“Black Vernacular,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
“Direct Design,” Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis, MN
“Most Days,” Arts Incubator, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
“Direct Design,” Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, CA
“Becoming Artists,” Yale University, New Haven, CT

“New Paradigms of Art in the Digital Age,” Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
“Conceptual Entrepreneurism,” Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD
“Black Vernacular,” SXSW, Austin, TX

“Real Talk,” California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA
“Hearth & Shelf,” Summer Forum, Chicago, IL

“The Didactic Possibilities of Film Titles,” HMAAC, Houston, TX
“Artist/Authors,” African American Library at the Gregory School, Houston, TX
“Artist Talk,” Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, TX
“Implications & Distinctions,” Project Row Houses, Houston, TX


“Most Days,” Mixed Media Recordings
“New Guards,” Dominica Publishing
“Book of Fate,” Miniature Garden

“Fools,” Dominica Publishing
“Showpaper 135,” edited by Ethan Swan, Showpaper
“Why You Watch What You Watch When You Watch,” Bodega Press

“Reference Work,” Golden Age/MCA Chicago
“Implications and Distinctions,” Future Plan and Program


Museum of Modern Art Library, New York, NY
Museum of Contemporary Art Library, Chicago, IL
Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, Chicago, IL