Divine Southgate-Smith

DIVINE SOUTHGATE-SMITH is a trans-disciplinary creative whose practice transcends far beyond the title of artist. The purpose within her work is delicate, poignant and far deeper than what the naked eye initially enables you to see. Her work takes you to a thought-provoking realm of our past, present and future that initiates a discussion on multiple subjects including culture, inclusivity and racism. 

She graduated Central St Martins in 2016 and is currently enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2019-2022). I had the privilege of interviewing her in the historic classroom of the Royal Academy to discuss her career and life thus far.

Can you tell me about your childhood?

I was born in Togo, West Africa. During my childhood we lived in Paris for a short period of time, which I would then visit every summer once I left. I moved to Notting Hill, London when I was 11 to study at Holland Park School.

Growing up I was obsessed with reading fiction, I loved absurd stories, especially The Nose by Gogol. I was always interested in plays, theatres and allusions from a very young age.

Did you speak English at the time and is the Togolese French language the same as French?

I didn’t speak any English when I got to London. Togolese French is the same as French, French is the official language for documents. At home I spoke another language, kind of like a Créole, a mix of French and many different African languages from my country’s tribes. We have about 50 languages within this tiny strip of a country. That is why it was good going to France growing up as it made me feel less isolated due to the shared language.

How did your passion for art grow?

It was during my secondary education that I found out that I really loved art. Prior to that I did not have any exposure into art other than literature. I kind of used art as a way of getting through school. I was the French person who knew how to write in cursive writing, forging signatures for P.E, designing peoples tags.

One day during detention I was called out and noticed artistically by my now favourite teacher, Miss Paul, who I still speak to. She kind of tutored me and gave me support and made me realise I could have a career in art.

What did that feel like – how old were you – and was that the first time you had support from someone, especially in school, within art, encouraging you and telling you to be yourself?

I was 14. The first creative support I received however was from my dance teacher, I was convinced I was going to be a dancer. Then my family were like no way! I used to have to hide in the corridor to not disappoint my dance teacher as I did not want to tell her I was not going to dance.

My art teacher was the second person that really supported me. I didn’t know anything about art, I was just doing dance and music. I used to sing, but I was very shy, I had private lessons, but in class I just mimed. But I wasn’t shy in dancing, I was dancing with the older students. Yet my family were just like you are not going to be a dancer, sorry. I was 16-17.

How did it feel when they said you could not do it?

I was very disappointed, I very much thought that I was running away and going to become a dancer. I was very convinced this was going to be my career path. At that time I grew to love my art teacher, she was a second family to me and she made me feel like I could do anything and I stuck with her because of that.

Darkness of the Sun

If you didn’t have that art teacher would you be here today? If not, what would you be doing instead?

No. I would probably be writing. When it came to choosing a university I was going to do history of art. I thought I would be writing about art, it had to be something creative led by academia. Much of my writing is led by this, but you might not necessarily initially think it. I was always interested in everything. Growing up I was that kid that did every possible club after school.

Why was that and what did you do?

Maybe because I didn’t have that support at home and it was sort of my rebellion.

I worked with underprivileged kids and children with down syndrome. I worked on a project with The Courtauld to help them curate a photography project and I took art history at The Courtauld in the summer. They used to hold classes for people with schizophrenia who loved to draw, so I would work with them. I did anything to fill up the days and the summer. It was then that I realised that I needed to do something creative, whether I was the one producing the work or not.

Do you think saying yes to all of the after school clubs and activities has transcended into your work today? You do a lot of collaborative projects and you are very open to suggestive ideas. There seems to be some parallels between that and how you were as a child/teenager.

Yes definitely. I recently became much more aware of myself, I would previously just go and do something without necessarily thinking about it.

Now that people are asking me questions, I realise that I am essentially doing the same things that I was doing since I was young, just in a very different way. I am a very shy person even if it does not look like it and my creativity has enabled me to have confidence to do things. It enabled me to get over the tensions in my house and the things I did not have control over, and that really helped me through my life

Do you feel like the questions that you’ve been asked about your work have given you more of an understanding of what you want to do?

Yes, the last few years during the pandemic were crucial years for me. Up until now I knew I wanted to do art, but I did not know how that would work as a career.

Previously I did not think about it is a career, I just thought I am going to do this thing, whatever this is. But I’ve been quite lucky throughout that process, because I have put myself out there quite a lot. I’ve realised that I was quite savvy and I have always found ways to make money, make projects and work with other people. Now I am realising that aspect of my practice is my practice. That I am able to work with other people and not care about the medium that I am using as long as I am doing something I believe in and it is exciting.

Your work has evolved from paintings to 3D renders and dystopian worlds, if someone sees your work what do you hope the viewer experiences?

That’s always a tricky one. I’m very into staging specific environments and what I’m interested in is my heritage and my journey through different societies. As someone who has collaborated a lot and is very open to difference, my own personal history allowed me to experience different realities.

That is where these dystopian forms come from, as I am trying to carve out a space which is devoid of these references, even if I am always dealing with historical matters, it almost seems as if it is devoid of these references, even though these references are very, very present. The works are extremely political and at the same time I am producing these works as a space of refuge. These spaces allow me to reflect my own identity in a field that not necessarily many black people are in.

Digital design is not necessarily always readily available to my culture. I was lucky enough that I was at a school where I learnt and had access to 3D design. That really allowed me to explore what kind of narratives we can speak about when talking about utopias, inclusivity, whether a space feels inclusive or if it is about pushing people out.

I feel like my prints are very much about making people feel included within the narrative, even if you do not understand all of the queues or references that go into a production of a 3D world like that. The spaces are extremely psychological. Black Iris is a homage to my community and makes me feel so beautiful when I look at it. Like wow.

What does Black Iris make you feel? 

I feel wrapped up, I imagine I am in the desert and the sun has completely gone down – there’s a vastness – but I feel safe because I am in the grandness of nature.

Black Iris

Going back to the origins of your career and how you got to this point, how did you start within art to get to here? 

As much as I love my art teacher the foundation was the moment I was free. Everyone was trying to pull me in the direction that they thought was best for me, but at this point I was finally free.

I just did my residency and I came back after that summer to the Art Academy, it’s very hard to get into (limited to 15 people in each year), but easy if you have money. I got lucky – because of my school and art teacher I got in.

That’s where I learnt about marble and print making, all of these traditional things, but what I loved was that the artists that were teaching us didn’t have practices that were traditional. I thought that this was very exciting. Simply because I came from the point where I learnt print making to a tee, painting etc, and then I had access to all of these other things. The artists teaching me were installation artists and they were making these massive architectural installations and I was like wow this is what I want to do.

I was very inspired by the teachers at the time. They pushed me to think about my love for literature, so I started writing, reading books and texts and started making massive installations out of paper. I would print images of rooms and recreate it with paper prints in another space so it would look like that room.

It was really exciting, I learnt so much about myself. I was always researching random references and I realised I could help other artists with my references. Many of those artists at the foundation are still my best friends to this day.

After the foundation I was not sure what I wanted to do and then eventually I stumbled upon Central St Martins (CSM).

How did you find it (CSM)?

I had one year at the Art Academy but during that time I was doing extracurricular courses. I was doing courses at CSM and I was contemplating whether I was going to do fashion, design or art – I did all of the courses. Just thinking about it now, I don’t know how I did it all. I basically did loads of courses before deciding to go to CSM.

During The Courtauld project, one of the tutors teaching art history happened to have an affiliation with CSM and they asked me if I wanted to take the opportunity to do some courses that they were doing such as fashion, photography and production – where I met many friends. I then did fashion film, over the summer, for three months. We went over the project at the end just to get a taster of how it would feel like to produce a whole project.

What was the plan post foundation? 

I was looking for more education. My family realised I wasn’t giving up on this. I then got into CSM to do fine art.

Were you happy to get in/did you know it was prestigious? 

I didn’t know much about CSM, that’s what’s so stupid of me. I just thought it was cool, the building, the fact that I had access to designers, architects, fashion designers, anything. That building harboured so much creativity. I looked at it and thought I could do anything – I can become friends with someone in fashion and make this collection that I have always wanted to make – and I came in with this perspective.

That is very refreshing as most people don’t have that perspective.

Really it was just a continuation of what I have been doing in a broader aspect. Where the possibilities were far more infinite then where I was before. Up until that point I didn’t do anything digitally I made everything by hand. At CSM I kind of stopped making things by hand, I didn’t know that was going to happen.

Did you make the most of it at CSM? Did you collaborate with people there? 

I was there all day, I was being kicked out every evening.

There are some key characters in my life that I met at CSM, who are still doing things in the same way that I am. It started socially and when we started looking at each other’s works and references we just fell in love with each other. It was kind of crazy, we ended making a hub around us through all of the different courses at CSM.

How did you do that? 

Just by talking to people. I realised at CSM that I had a magnetism; people would just approach me and I would talk to everybody.

At some point my best friends would say that they can’t walk down the street without me talking to someone, they were like let’s GO. For me it was great, at CSM you call it ‘the street’, and for me the street was where I met really random people. At CSM people dressed crazily, I was just taking everything in. Eventually we just formed this little group around us and other creatives, we then realised that we would work together, and that happened naturally. There were three of us at the core of the whole thing, Ines Zenha, Bence Magyarlaki and myself, we called it ( )PARENTHESIS STUDIO.

Eventually I also started creating an event. We realised it was too expensive to show art in a formal space therefore my best friend and I at the time, started 14th Cinema, a way to bring people together. The two of us were very obsessed with architecture and we started thinking about how to make exhibitions more accessible to people like us and we moved into a warehouse on Curtain Road. This was, at least for us at the time, a very lux looking place. We figured out a way to turn this space into a place where we could exhibit work every two months and then got people at CSM to exhibit at the show.

The first time we did it people were so confused, asking if it was really our house as they thought it was a gallery. They asked if they could do the next show in the space and we were like we need to move all of our staff back into the house…

At the time it was our baby. The reason it was called 14th Cinema was because at the time I was very focused on theatre, film and architecture. All my films were conceptually driven and would involve very big installations. I would design all the time and then make the installation by hand. I know I said I stopped making works by hand, but these were physical structures out of wood. I would make these big installations and we would then knock them down.

Were they busy events and what were the ideas behind the shows? 

Yes. It was such a success, we didn’t think it would be like that.

Each show had a theme. The artworks on show needed to be in expanded media that didn’t fall into one category. For example, it could be a painter that makes large scale installations that are more architectural works then they are paintings. We didn’t have things on the walls, it was very different. After doing the first show, we said okay let’s take this seriously.

We would go to the Royal Academy shows and choose the artists we like and then we would invite them to exhibit. Because we did it so well and branded ourselves, people thought we were an actual gallery. Thereafter I couldn’t believe it. These artists were showing in my house. We would have performances on the evening and we had Albert Riera, who owns the Emergent Magazine – a very good painting magazine – selling his zines there.

We would collect each other’s works, display the works and support each other. It was one night only. We would get free drinks form Portugal as my friend’s family owns a company that produces wine in Portugal and they had the bottles in the UK. We would spend a £100 max on each event.

It was also called 14th Cinema because we would project films onto the street during the show. We would ask the neighbours opposite if we could put a screen on their garage, so people would see the films from the streets, people would come just to see that. Everything needed to be exhibited in a weird way, it needed to be strange. It just worked. Eventually others got on board, and we created a little collective.

That collective then started worked together, alongside our own practices. Bence Magyarlaki and myself then formed a duo, we created a piece that was two storeys high and we made it all by hand. It was called Towards Fragments and it was an architectural piece. I could not believe I had done that, it was the last time I created something by hand. This was for my final show at CSM and we just erected this massive architectural piece, it was nominated for the Nova Award Prize.

That’s incredible. Did people in CSM then contact you to be a part of 14th Cinema? 

Yes and we didn’t have capacity. We didn’t know at that point that we were going to move to Portugal. It would have carried on. I was supposed to do it when I came back to London, but I was the only one here. Therefore 14th Cinema is kind of changing. Many of my best friends are abroad – so this shift is happening – and what I realised was that I needed to make my own studio. But I need to make the capital first.


14th Cinema and CSM highlight the power of collaboration. For someone less social than you, what would you recommend they do at art school? 

For me what really worked was dreaming. I always say it. For me if I didn’t dream it all first then I am not sure I would be able to convince people of what I am thinking about or what I am dreaming about, sometimes those things can really drive you.

It’s almost that you have to be precious and not very precious at the same time in order to be able to work with people. To be able to go up to someone and engage with them you have to be able to kill your ideas. There are moments when you have an idea and you are very convinced that you are going to make it happen.

However there are moments when you need to be flexible. When you are trying to work with someone and engage with someone, you need to be flexible to allow that person to be a part of your narrative. You need to be flexible to be able to work with someone long term. I like to be very direct with my intentions and that was very hard for me to do at CSM, that was the first time I started working with people and getting the best out of every day.

Sometimes I would be sure that I knew the best way, but working with my best friend Bence, who’s an amazing sculpturer, he taught me to be like ‘no Divine I also have a perspective, and we can make it work in a way that is conducive to both of us’.

An example is, I used to wake up very early at 6am and he was like I can’t work that early, and for me I can’t work late as I need to sleep. Therefore, we needed to find a compromise. What you need to do is to know when you need to compromise and when it would be useful for you too. It is important in order to work together.

I would also say take a deep, deep, deep breath. If you are nervous – and I get nervous and anxious a lot – I just force myself into it, and then I am in the conversation and I’m like wow how do I get out of this. But once you are in it you realise nothing worse could happen. When you start realising that, and realise, oh I know what I am talking about, as I am going as myself, I am not going as anybody else, then your confidence builds.

The best thing for me is to take the band aid off and just do it, your ego needs to break down and build up to enable you to create a muscle for it. That is something that that my art teacher showed me. My art teacher used to rip my artwork up in front of me and I’d be like what! I spent so much time on that. What it showed me is that sometimes we get so focused on the fact that we created something, when we could actually take a step back and look at it again from a more subjective point of view. I feel like sometimes I can be protective of my ideas and careless and sometimes you don’t know when to stop, but you need to.

Just because you didn’t get to do something does not mean that you cannot do it at a different time. Do not throw anything away, keep your ideas. It took me time to learn that.

After CSM you leave London and move to Lisbon. What were the reasons and rationale behind that? 

It was certainly cheaper than London. I would recommend this to anyone, it may be harder after Brexit, but I’d recommend going abroad to anyone after university.

At first I was concerned that no one was going to know who I was if I left London, I had just started building a name for myself, but then I was like I have to leave my ego behind. I knew it would be beneficial. I knew I did not want to work at a retail store in London anymore, where my manager made me feel like I could not do any better.

I have had this a lot, when you show confidence at times people do not like it and think that you are lying to yourself. I realised that was happening at work with my manager and it was awkward. He mentioned that he used to be a graphic designer and now he was my manager and that I needed to consider my options. I was like yo I know my options! I’ve worked very hard for my options.

I had this fear of what he was saying and that I was going to end up working in a retail store for the rest of my life. So I just left. I had the Hermès show lined up at the Saatchi Gallery, via our collective, and we left on a high. We were like let’s use this money to move to another country.

Take a Second to Breath

Who was in the collective for this project and how did you approach Hermès?

Ines Zenha, Bence Magyarlaki, myself and a friend of mine, Clara Imbert. She’s a French photographer and sculptor. She is doing very well and stayed in Portugal after I left.

Clara’s mother had a contact at Hermès, Marie Moatti, who we had dinner with at Chiltern Firehouse to discuss general ideas. She was giving us all of these ideas and talking about all of these people. That was the first time I met someone where I was like you are bigger than me, I was so scared, I was like we’re messing this meeting up so bad!

There was a moment where she mentioned that she went to an exhibition at the Serpentine which explored architecture. This is the moment I realised how we could convince her that we can build anything. I mentioned Frank Gehry, and she was like I’m actually friends with him, which amazed me. I then mentioned that he’s one of my favourite architects. I told her what I felt when I saw his exhibition.

What also helps me when I’m nervous is talking about something that makes me feel good and then I can get into the business part.

I told her what I felt about the first time I went to the Royal Academy (not knowing I’d go there) and how Frank Gehry’s works inspired me to showcase my works in the way that I do. I mentioned that I am interested in space and discussed these big installations that we had built. She then got interested and she said yes to potentially working with us after a negroni. She’s a funny lady, a beautiful lady and we keep in touch via social media.

Eventually we met the Hermès team as a collective and they loved all of our work individually. I think that was what was really important to us as a collective, we weren’t a collective where everything we did was about the collective, we all had our own different practices.

Before a project we would sit together and take on any idea, even if we had never made it before. We trusted that our skills would allow us to make it. We had a photographer, someone who is very sensitive to light and colour and her aesthetics are so beautiful and not rigid. We had a painter that made massive paintings that were very architectural, then Bence, who is also a filmmaker and sculptor, who alongside myself made very rigid and conceptual works. We would make the 3D models and make sure everyone’s work would be presented beautifully as one.

By knowing how to work with people you learn how to understand them. You realise that in the process of trying to make something beautiful you are not saying my idea is the best, it is really all about the group and project and that way ego can also be killed. That is easier said than done, but with time and in a group you begin to trust people and you become friends with them. It is great to be friends with your collaborators and you can build something really cool and be proud of it.

Eventually by working together on projects it led us to meeting the Hermès team. They initially wanted to showcase the project at CSM but we couldn’t ask the students to take their work out just for us to showcase our collective. Therefore we made a list of galleries which we would propose to Hermès. We put the Saatchi Gallery in there as an ambitious wildcard. When they were looking through the gallery list they told us they had actually been a sponsor at the Saatchi Gallery in the past and they were like yes let’s do it there then. I was like wait what. That was the wildcard and it worked, you need to dream, you never know, you need to be cheeky.

We then went to Portugal.

What was Portugal like?

It was hard. As expensive as London is you realise that people get paid well to live in London because it is so expensive. In Portugal it is the same but the wages are very low, so we got broke up very quickly.

We did get to go to exhibitions, dress up, drink, and enjoy, I made a great network there, one I couldn’t have made in London. I met huge curators and painters such as Angela de la Cruz from Spain. Through the events we met many people, we even had VIP passes at some events which enabled us go around Lisbon even though we didn’t have any money.

I worked with a composer who was my professor and mentor in Portugal. He ran the Galeria 3+1 ARTE CONTEMPORÂNEA a very good contemporary gallery in Lisbon. He was shadowing us as a collective and passed us onto Lexus (automobiles) in secret, he said to Lexus you have to meet these kids who have just arrived in Lisbon they are kind of crazy, which really helped.

During our time in Lisbon we worked on a commission with Lexus, that gave us the ability to stay in Portugal. For my part I did a print of their car, one of my first prints was an image of many exploding parts. That was one of the most commercial pieces we had done, it was drilled into our heads at CSM that commercial art is bad art. It was hard for us to do, but we needed to do it and you realise that art is not about ego.

At some point if you are someone who has something to give and you have an expression, why are you going to stop yourself from doing it. In the end you are just judging yourself and limiting yourself from having these experiences.

After some time in Lisbon I did a residency, which is where I realised that I wanted to make artwork that was not commercial anymore. I started focusing on black culture a lot more. Even if it was there before in my work it wasn’t obvious. During the residency we were tasked with a commission where you needed to create work for a hotel. After some time there the main person at the residency asked me where the prints were (that he was expecting me to make). But I had made a film and an installation instead. I felt so bad at the time, I was like you literally gave this guy a conceptual piece of work that you couldn’t put in a hotel. But in the end it got me into the Royal Academy (RA).

Divine Southgate-Smith III

What was getting into the RA like? Were you shocked? 

I was very shocked as those works literally came out of a residency. It was important for me to do that work.

As amazing as all of this sounds, there were a lot of racist things that came out of the arts in Portugal, I’m sure it’s the same here (UK). I know it is, but it was my first confrontation with it. As a student you are like wow I cannot wait to be in the art market and I cannot wait to see what that world is about. They paint it as this perfect picture. You start meeting collectors, going to these amazing houses, but then people started making comments directed at the fact that I was African and that I was making artwork that didn’t necessarily have African aesthetics within it and making comments that were just not okay. Then I slowly realised it was irking me. At the beginning I was really enjoying this process but then I realised it was not okay.

I can envisage you sitting in a house having a coffee or a drink and everyone’s having a good time, and then someone makes these off-key remarks, and you look at each other. When you leave were you like did that really happen like that? It must leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Yes exactly, slowly that bitter taste grew more bitter and I was like wow I’m not going to go through this and ended up hating the whole thing. I still don’t like this idea of art fairs as I did so many of them whilst I was there. Through the comments and people I met I thought I don’t need your money if you are going to be like this.

I then started being more selective with how I navigated through that world. I realised I don’t know if I necessarily need go through the set pathway of becoming an artist. When I got to the RA, I noticed that the environment in Portugal and the environment at the RA were very similar. I started thinking about how I can use those environments to carve a space for myself in the art market and be as autonomous as I can be. I think that it’s important and empowering as a person of colour and a female, to do that. There are people who have done that, who may be considered commercial artists, however they are still revered – but they are all men!

How would you do that? 

By doing collaborations. By making artworks that have value to me, that has a value which is not just commercial. Something that brings communities together and working with my close community, queer people, persons of colour and mixing different ideologies.

The work for me is just a secondary part of it, it is also about giving people opportunities which I am kind of doing now. In my current project with Apple I am doing that, making sure that within the project I am working with people who are of colour, that is for me what is important as an artist, I don’t really care about anything else.

I think the larger you grow the more influence you have will have, and you’ll be brilliant in mentoring. Last question. For people who cannot get into any art schools, but they are talented or have the ability to be talented, who dream of going to CSM or can’t get into a foundation what advice would you give to them? 

I would say you don’t need art school. I almost didn’t go. I don’t think you need art school at all. All of the key experiences I have had have been outside of art school. Everything I’ve done is not because of art school, even if I’ve been lucky enough to be in the good art schools. I would say you don’t need art schools but you need to be able to have self-autonomy.

You need to be able to work on yourself. It is like going to the gym. If you want that beautiful Adonis body then you need to go to the gym every morning, you need to be able to work for yourself, but you also need to surround yourself with people who are supportive, and who are not afraid to try something different.

Money is also not necessarily important. Most of the projects I did whilst I was in university and before then did not involve too much money, I didn’t have any. If you are able to save some money and you know that it will enable you to buy a couple of copies of a print, you just do it.

It is also always good to ask advice from people who are older than you, even if they are not in the arts, but they know how to use their finances and who can give you good advice. You need to know who all of those people are and surround yourself with them.

The rest is down to your creativity.

DIVINE SOUTHGATE-SMITH is only getting started and has a long way to go before reaching her creative and mentorship potential. In the space of our interview she was working on a three dimensional film, furniture design and end of year exhibition.

As her platform and capital access grows she will able to realise the full ambition of her ideas, creating projects far greater than herself. She will continue to cross disciplines with ease and inspire future generations to believe in themselves, their craft and most importantly feel included. She will open doors, push boundaries and create conversations around sensitive topics that others may be afraid to broach.

I feel fortunate to have witnessed the early stages of her career and will continue to support her and admire her with awe and appreciation for the years to come.

Charlie Spot 2022

1578 1130 Jason Tucker