Martine Syms, Incense Sweaters & Ice, 2017
Incense Sweaters & Ice is a feature-length film that follows three protagonists – Mrs Queen Esther Bernetta White, Girl, and WB ('whiteboy') – as they navigate and construct their own image via digital communications and social media. In doing so, the film reflects on the way we act, how we see ourselves and monitor our performance, and by extension examines other people’s perceptions of us. In some ways, the film considers our life and social interactions as a visual construction akin to cinema but processual and always in real-time.
The central protagonist is a nurse whom we see moving between her home in L.A and her job in Mississippi, a path that retraces the route of the Great Migration. Her text messages with WB appear overlaid on footage of her daily routines; she visits a farmer’s market, and her family, and she dances, reads, drives, eats. The story is periodically interrupted by a recurring interlude where Queen (jazz vocalist Fay Victor), who always appears in a purple recording studio, offers life advice and coaching. Syms has cited Maxime Powell, Motown Records’ etiquette coach, as an inspiration for the character and she appears like a conscience, or a devil's advocate, offering dubious advice that seems to be ambivalent to racial struggles. She focuses on personal self-improvement devoid of political context which contrasts with the politically empowering monologues heard when we see the central protagonist getting ready for a night out. With these elements, alongside superimposed social media posts and archival images of family photos, the film conflates the public and private nature of the aspirational media sphere and plays out the politics of representation within visual cultures.
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