Review: The African Desperate

Martine Syms, The African Desperate, 2022

This text first appeared in ArtReview

For all its dramatic potential, the art school has never been the subject of a blockbuster. Terry Zwigoff’s 2006 Art School Confidential, in which the star student painter’s career and love prospects were hampered by a string of campus murders, was a flop. It turns out nobody wants to watch an adolescent solving crimes on canvas.

In Martine Syms’s art school-insider satire The African Desperate, which follows the MFA artist Palace Bryant’s (Diamond Stingly) graduation day, clichés such as ‘the work’ or dramatic jeopardy are long gone. Palace’s final exhibition consists of an upturned bucket and a piece of Himalayan rock-salt and looks more like the work of an overzealous set designer than an artist. She barely bothers to defend her work to the panel of examiners, only half-heartedly invoking her race – and confusing the African ‘diaspora’ with ‘desperation’ – for something to say. But this is a 100 percent-pass-rate industry, so nobody corrects her and Palace’s professors laud her with inconsequential citations from en-vogue black thinkers (Fred Moten, Édouard Glissant). If this seems like an anticlimax, it’s because the prior three years on the idyllic upstate New York campus probably weren’t much, either.

The African Desperate is streaming on Mubi.