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White suitor, black maid: Martine Syms takes on black women representations in 'Misdirected Kiss'

White suitor, black maid: Martine Syms takes on black women representations in 'Misdirected Kiss'
L.A. artist Martine Syms isstaging a performance/lecture at the Broad museum titled "Misdirected Kiss." (Hal Wells/Los Angeles Times)

In the 1904 film "The Misdirected Kiss," a smitten young man with eyesight problems brings flowers to his beloved. When the maid comes out moments later to arrange the bouquet, he confuses her with his love, and in a moment of passion, takes her hand and kisses it lovingly. The suitor is white; the maid, black. The comedic plot toyed with notions of racial and class propriety of that era.

It is a conceit that caught the eye of Martine Syms, a Los Angeles artist who often picks apart issues of language and representation in works that range from video to lectures to written essays to indefinable hybrids of all three.

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"I was thinking about this proliferation of images of black women," she explains. "And I started thinking about the overarching idea of representation — of the desirability of black women. In these films, and in a lot of other popular media, on the one hand, they're saying these woman are desirable. On the other, they're negating it."

Syms expounds on the topic in a performance Thursday evening at the Broad museum. Titled "Misdirected Kiss," it's part of a series of feminist art performances at the museum.

Previously staged at the Storm King Art Center in New York's Hudson Valley, the show is as much lecture as performance. Syms will talk about representations of black women as she builds a related collage of imagery on a computer. These are harvested from a variety of sources, including EBay. The whole process is projected onto a screen as she speaks.

Syms often works with photos and other imagery she finds through a variety of means — such as this publicity picture of Queen Latifah that the artist purchased on EBay.
Syms often works with photos and other imagery she finds through a variety of means — such as this publicity picture of Queen Latifah that the artist purchased on EBay. (Martine Syms)

The artist's work draws heavily from all forms of culture, both high and low. "I'm so voracious with books, movies, TV," explains Syms, "and I'm always interested in the way that different cultural values are presented or, in their absence, are present."

Performance series curator Jennifer Doyle says that Syms' work caught her eye because of its rather unclassifiable nature.

"It's a space in between performance and poetry, and it isn't simple spoken word — a live performance of poetry," she says. "It's more of a performative lecture. And I wanted to do this in the context of the Oculus Hall [at the Broad] since it feels like a lecture hall more than it does a performance space."

And, of course, there's the intriguing nature of the artist's material.

"It's really grounded in her thinking about gestures and composure and comportment, and the ways in which black women, in particular, experience a disciplining of one's body, one's movement, one's presence," she says.

For Syms, 27, the performance will be one of many projects debuting around Los Angeles in the first half of the year. This week, it was announced that she would be one of more than two dozen L.A. artists selected to participate in the Hammer Museum's "Made in L.A. Biennial," opening in June.

Next month, she will show a series of short video works at Human Resources Los Angeles, the artist-run exhibition space in L.A.'s Chinatown. And in March, she will be showing photography and installation pieces at Karma International in Beverly Hills.

Moreover, the artist runs a small art book imprint, Dominica Publishing [warning: site contains explicit language], that next month will release two titles at the L.A. Art Book Fair: "Dark Pool Party" by Berlin-based artist Hannah Black, and "There is Nothing to Divide Us If We Do Not Exist," a collection of sci-fi poems by Sara Knox Hunter.

All of these pieces are bound together by the artist's interest in representation, especially when it comes to black women.

"I think of this proliferation of images — of [actors such as] Taraji Henson and Viola Davis and all of this talk about the 'year of the black woman,' " Syms says. "I think of meme images and GIFs, in which people use these women's gestures to communicate. They have a currency."

In those images, Syms also finds currency — and a story worth telling.

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"Misdirected Kiss," part of "The Tip of Her Tongue" feminist performance art series, takes place at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Broad museum, 221 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, thebroad.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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