During one of his legendary appearances on Chappelle's Show, the comedian Paul Mooney tackled cultural appropriation in his “Ask A Black Dude” segment, saying at one point, “The black man in America is the most copied man on this planet.” The segment inspired writer Doreen St. Felix to tweet, “everybody wanna be a black woman but nobody wanna be a black woman.” St. Felix’s riff on Mooney’s joke inspired conceptual artist Martine Syms’ latest show, Vertical Elevated Oblique, an exploration into the connections between manual gestures, language, and modes of appropriation.
“Mooney thinks that the black man is the most copied figure in America, but I think it's really the black woman,” explains Syms to The Creators Project. “It's fascinating how she can be so undervalued and yet the elements that constitute her are employed by everyone. I wanted to create an inventory of gestures for performance. I was thinking about the difference between real and authentic movements and how these are recorded in our bodies,” says Syms, who used John Bulwer’s 17th century text Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand as a guide to examine modern gestures.
The work that anchors the show is a video entitled Notes on Gesture, which seeks to catalog the body language of black women. In it, a woman wags her finger, smacks her lips, sucks her teeth, and pounds a fits on her open hand as she speaks out phrases like “please don’t” while text phrases like, “when they got you fucked up,” flash across the screen to contextualize the gestures on display.
The video slows down and often loops each gesture and spoken word into GIFs. “I like the way that GIFs function as gesture on screen,” explains the artist. “I use them in communication with my friends. We use a short, looping film of a movement as a response. It already works as language, so I wanted to expand on that and create a kind of alphabet.”
In looping the film, Syms locates a specific black woman’s experience that calls attention to the fact that the way the body moves is often born out of communal experiences that are highly racialized. “I modeled myself after the women in my family, celebrities, and public figures,” says Syms pointing to interactions that explain how gestures accumulate in the body. The GIF-like quality of the film also draws a distinction between authentic and dramatic gestures and how body language communicates social positioning and power dynamics.
Syms also recreates Notes on Gesture in the physical environment of the gallery space itself. A purple motif runs throughout the show—there’s a large wooden purple painting in the gallery space and the entire show is cast in purple lighting—that matches the backdrop of the screen in the video. There are text works with phrases like “it bees that way sometime,” hung throughout the gallery of Vertical Elevated Oblique.
The show also features photographs, sculptures, and published texts that represent the artist’s broader practice of capturing language in her work. “I've been publishing since I was a 12-year-old punk,” says Syms. “There are many voices that disappear because they haven't been documented. I took Calvin Johnson's advice to ‘document your scene,’ very seriously,” says Syms. Before starting Dominica, her own publishing house in Los Angeles, the artist ran a bookstore and publishing imprint called Golden Age.
The work in the show not only documents women’s articulations of blackness but also comments on how, in the digital era, those movements are being shared and appropriated in ways that raise questions about how to negotiate authentic communication and perceived notions of black femininity that lead to greater questions of stereotyping and erasure. “The women pictured in my show are models of agency,” says Syms. “Their bodies are frequently used to express popular ideas and emotions. I wanted to think about what their bodies mean and what they perform.
Martine Syms: Vertical Elevated Oblique is on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery through November 1, 2015. For more information, click here.