REVIEW: Self-Care as Armour: Reading Borrowed Lady: Martine Syms


"I spend a lot of time looking at pictures of women, trying to learn something about them, and maybe learn something about myself."1

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture, 2015. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Borrowed Lady: Martine Syms is the third publication in the SFU Galleries Critical Reader Series and expands upon Syms' first solo exhibition in Canada (Audain Gallery, October 13 - December 10, 2016). In this iterative book, editor and curator Amy Kazymerchyk brings together vital texts that express Syms' methodologies and influences on her performance, text-based and media-based works. The Critical Reader contains a transcription of Syms' performative lecture, Misdirected Kiss; a poetic text by artist and friend Diamond Stingily; and a close reading of the exhibition by scholar Christina Sharpe. Together these texts expand upon ideas of self-care, Blackness, performance, gesture, and new media.

In the transcription of Misdirected Kiss, previously presented at Western Front as part of Scrivener's Monthly (January 28, 2016, Vancouver) and at The Broad in Los Angeles (January 21, 2016), Syms traces the various philosophical, visual and cinematic representations of contemporary and historical Black life that have informed her alongside familial inheritances. She reminisces about her great Aunt Bunt and the belongings and legacy she left behind after her death. Sharpe recalls in the essay, The Crook of Her Arm, that "[Aunt Bunt] taught Syms how to stand, how to dress, how to talk."2 Syms not only reflects on familial influences but also broader pop-culture: sitcom television, pop music, celebrity icons, and Internet culture. These are the popular archives Syms works with to expand upon the contingencies that construct Black identity. Her method in Misdirected Kiss is unique in that she gives equal weight to the influence of her family and pop culture on her identity.

In Sharpe's reading of Syms' work, she writes that Syms' use of repetition is an "aesthetic expression of exhaustion."3 In her eponymous video, Syms echoes Giorgio Agamben's 1992 essay Notes on Gesture, an examination of the status of the image in the 20th century. Agamben argues that although gesture was lost with the emergence of cinema, it opened up an ethical and political dimension, allowing new possibilities of embodiment to emerge. If that is the case, then Syms' usage of repetition, hand gestures and hyperbolized movement are a way to restore the Black body's ability to self-perform. Syms' excessive gestures are towards recuperation and visibility, to a point of exhaustion, mimicking the way images go viral in our contemporary culture.

Syms also reflects on a panel discussion about Arthur Jafa's film Dreams are Colder than Death in which poet and scholar Fred Moten describes the film as having a "fugitive modality," referring to the ways certain films render Black actors as being trapped in the cinematic apparatus because of the way frames capture bodies in motion. In many ways, how Black bodies are captured in various mediums is what concerns Syms–which loops back to Agamben's impressions on gesture. But what happens when Black bodies are captured on screen but denied a bodily existence in the real world? What does it mean to go viral in a state of oppression, where we see the on-screen and lived continual violence against Black people?

Syms performative lecture, alongside many of her other works, is an attempt to make herself and her inheritances be seen and heard. Agamben writes: "what characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured & supported."4 With virality and vigilance, Syms gestures towards an embodied endurance of Blackness.

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture, 2015. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

As a young woman, several transformative experiences gave Syms the strength that women often transfer to one another to survive. She looks back on a "charm-school" she attended called TZONE that was started by supermodel Tyra Banks in 1999. The camp offered an empowerment program to bolster young women's self-esteem. Although the camp experience was traumatic and destabilizing for Syms, it revealed to her how self-esteem operates on a gestural level - as armor and protection. In the lecture Syms demonstrates how she learned to achieve these aims by standing one's ground and being vigilant and firm in oneself. Syms quotes Audre Lorde: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgent. It's self-preservation. And that's an act of political welfare."5 Syms usage of extreme presence in her work is way to resist the racialized violence and tropes that perpetuate a status of invisibility for Black women.

"Often when we talk about the wonderful Black women in our lives, their valour, their emotional strength, their psychic endurance overwhelm our texts so much that we forget that apart from learning the elegant art of survival from them, we also learn in their gestures the fine art of sensuality, the fleshy art of pleasure and desire."6

In the final text of the Critical Reader, Stingily's poem The Women takes a similar iterative approach to Misdirected Kiss. Stingily traces the lineage of women that raised her: Grandma Granny, Auntie Pearl, Aunty Tiny, Grandma Estelle, and her mother Sandra. Her poetic gesture is also about formation: how we come to be in the world via our inheritances. Borrowed Lady: Martine Syms draws in and highlights the essence of gesture and self-care in Syms' methodology and works. The Critical Reader brings attention to Syms' version of self-care: a world where sharing and borrowing become necessary for survival and recognition. It's a type of self-care that acts as political armor rather than pure self-indulgence for the sake of feeling better. It's about becoming visible, becoming present and seen in a world still mediated by racism and white supremacy.


For more information about Martine Syms' Borrowed Lady, click here.


[1] Martine Syms, "Misdirected Kiss," in Borrowed Lady: Martine Syms, edited by Amy Kazymerchyk (Vancouver: SFU Galleries, 2016), 45.

[2] Christina Sharpe, "The Crook of Her Arm," in Borrowed Lady: Martine Syms, edited by Amy Kazymerchyk (Vancouver: SFU Galleries, 2018), 36.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, "Notes on Gesture," in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 56.

[5] Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: Essays (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988), quoted in Syms, "Misdirected Kiss," 57.

[6] Sharpe, 31.