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The Opening Response: Divine Southgate-Smith

The Opening Response titles a special series of interviews with artists, curators, writers, composers, mediators, and space-makers around the world. Dialoguing within and around the thematics which have rapidly emerged as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we offer within this frame a differentiated, honest, and beautiful bid at understanding. Weekly, distinct doors are opened into the lives of the contributors; into their experiences dawning on pleasure, productivity, metaphysics, and paradigmatic shifts. Hopefully, these conversations can act as way-posts and lead to furthered empathy, unison, and co-creation. The Opening Response meets the need for weaving the autonomy of a web of conscious communications in times of extreme perplexity.

Divine Southgate-Smith (b. 1995, Lome, Togo) is a British trans-disciplinary artist. Raised between Paris and London, she is currently enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2019-2022).

Southgate-Smith has developed a practice comprising film, text, spoken word, performance, sound, installation, and sculpture. The work often references and questions articulations of black, queer, and female experience. She navigates hypothetical spaces where things are abstracted, contextualised, de-contextualised, omitted, revealed, voiced, or silenced. Through questioning the traditional equation between sight and understanding – she attempts to use spoken address to contemplate the relationship between visual representation, position (societal and political), stereotyping, authority, oppression, and empowerment.

In 2016, alongside 3 other emerging artists from Central Saint Martins, she established the artist collective ( )PARENTHESIS STUDIO. The collective exhibited their most recent works as part of a collaboration with In Limen at Teatro Romano, Lisbon (2019), LEXUS at the UX Art Space, Lisbon (2018), and HERMÈS at the Saatchi Gallery, London (2017). Southgate-Smith is the founder of The House of Contemporaries (2020) and the former Co-Founder of 14TH CINEMA (2016-2018) a curatorial platform for expanded media and performance art. Her work has been nominated for the MULLEN LOWE GROUP NOVA Award (2017), The International TAKIFUJI Art Award (2017), and The Drawing Prize (2014). Southgate-Smith has just completed her residency program at Third Base Residency, Lisbon (2018/19) and has previously participated in the selected exhibitions: SWITCH Gallery, Lisbon (2019), Galeria Dona Laura, Lisbon (2019), Galeria FOCO, Lisbon (2019), AMAC Auditorium, Barreiro (2019), SWITCH Gallery, Lisbon (2018), LEXUS UX Art Space, Lisbon (2018), Galeria FOCO, Lisbon (2018), Saatchi Gallery, London (2017), Lethaby Gallery, London (2016), La Porte Peinte, France (2013) and The Muse Gallery, London (2012).

 

Josseline Black – In this phase of forced isolation, how are you articulating your response in public discourse? What is your role in this larger conversation?

Divine Southgate-Smith – It seems that more than ever, there is a necessity for engaging in public discourse. Despite the initial reaction to COVID-19 (which has resulted in a global state of emergency and enforced isolation), the consensus at the time was that of renewal and self-care. I approached this from a social perspective, by looking after loved ones, my close community, and friends. Discussions centred around issues on the tips of our tongues: climate change, capitalism, lifestyle, to name a few.

It felt like something was going to change, but it seems we still don’t know how all of this is going to end. Suddenly, a surprising thing happened… the shit hit the fan (excuse my French). I say “surprising” given the nature of my practice. Suddenly, my community was crying out, crying out on all media outlets, especially social media. Social justice, racial, political, and economic equality was all I could think. I am no stranger to all these jargons, but when paired with footage of mourning, anger, despair, violence, ignorance, and racism, I found myself in an unusual position. I couldn’t speak.

It seemed that the coverage of this has once again been reframed. This misrepresentation of intent fuelled a counter-reaction on social media and, eventually, the streets.

So, I suppose the answer is that: I have been engaging in this larger conversation in my work and everyday social and professional sphere. It just seems now that a sense of solidarity is needed not only from those affected but also those implicated in this complex network we call home, society, and country. The question of racial equality was under the microscope again as something that could be recognised as affecting us all, not merely something that happens somewhere Far, Far Away, an issue that requires active participation from all. A sense of civic duty was in the air and calling for awareness, education, and restructuring.

JB – Has your artistic practice changed through isolation? What is your position on the relationship between catastrophe and solidarity?

DSS – My work is multi-disciplinary, so I guess I was able to continue working from home. I think the hardest part was keeping stimulated and motivated to produce. I went into the quarantine, still editing a film adaptation of a text I wrote called WAKANDA FOREVER. I had been creating this at The Royal Academy of Arts, Schools.

My studio is closed until further notice, so I was pretty lucky that I could continue working (which is not the case for all). My engagement with social media is pretty limited, but with the flood of posts that I was receiving my inability to speak found a creative outlet. I posted my unfinished film to much internal debate. All I knew was that I wanted to engage in this broader conversation, and the only way this could translate at the time was through Instagram and through what I know best, Art.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that this has changed my practice, but it certainly has prompted me to question the word activism. There seems to be a lot of pressure on social media regarding this topic. Silence came into the discourse quite frequently, and since I deal with silence in my work, I started to question this digital silence and to what effect does this deny a feeling of solidarity. Does it? What form does activism take in this contemporary landscape, is it enough to ‘click’ post?

I feel as though I am someone who favours real social interaction, and if this is the case, how can I contribute to a network of hearts and smiley faces? Can I? The complexities of social change need to be challenged in structural, institutional, and intimate spheres, voices need to be heard, faces need to be seen, and ears must listen.

I’m still processing all of this, so I suppose I’ll have to get back to you on that one…

JB – How would you define the present moment, metaphysically/literally/symbolically?

DSS – The present moment is a time for CHANGE, EDUCATION, PARTICIPATION, IMPLICATION, and DUTY.

JB – Do you see the potential for renewed support for cultural production in spite of macro and micro-economies, which are currently rapidly restructuring?

DSS – This question is a tricky one for me to answer as it splits me in two. It is clear that there is a lot of emphasis on the importance of cultural production; however, there are many artists and creatives who are not getting the right support from institutions. I suppose funds will be redirected and even redistributed after the effects of COVID-19. But already there are a lot of problems within the Arts that have to be drastically addressed and resolved. Funding and support are available, of course, but only to a few. Being an artist today has a lot of step backs, especially when this becomes a full-time occupation. If we want more Art, we have to support more artists.

JB – What is your utopia now?

DSS – I suppose the only thing I can say concerning this is that I want to live and engage in an inclusive society. A society in which B.A.M.E, LGBTQIA, Mentally, and Physically disadvantaged persons can be entirely accepted and given a platform and a voice to contribute to a broader context. A context currently being monopolised by our inability to broaden our preconceived ideologies, failure to question comfort, and lack of education and awareness when dealing with the “other” (for lack of a better word).

If our media outlets monetize on fear and misdirection, then let’s not fail our civic duties by turning this moment into a social spectacle. Let us be intentional and responsive in our life, as well as our digital experience of it.

If this is a Utopia, then I cannot accept it as one. I believe in the human potential to envisage a better world. Still, I don’t think this is necessarily the time to think of one. Not only is it unproductive, but it also unveils the fallibility of Utopias, in a time when real action is pivotal.

Josseline Black-Barnett is a contemporary curator, writer, and researcher. She holds an M.A. in time-based media from the Kunst Universität Linz and a B.A. in Anthropology (specialization Cotsen Institute of Archaeology) from the University of California Los Angeles. She operated for five years as in-house curator of the international artistic residency program at the Atelierhaus Salzamt (Austria) wherein she had the privilege of working closely with a number of brilliant artists. Included in her duties within the institution she allocated and directed the Salzamt hosting of the E.U. CreArt mobility for artists program. As a writer, she has reviewed exhibitions and co-edited texts for Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Portugal, Madre Museum Naples, the Museums Quartier Vienna, MUMOK, Guimarães Gallery, Gallery Michaela Stock. She is regular theoretical contributor to the Contemporary Art Magazine Droste Effect. In addition, she has published with Interartive Malta, OnMaps Tirana, Albania, and L.A.C.E (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). In tandem to her curatorial practice and writing, she has for the past decade used choreography as a research tool inquiring into the ontology of the performing body with a focus on embodied cartographies of public memory and space. She has held research residencies at the East Ugandan Arts Trust, the Centrum Kultury w Lublinie, the University of Arts Tirana Albania, and the Upper Austrian Architectural Forum. It is her privilege to continue developing her approach to curatorship which derives from an anthropological reading of art production and an ethnological dialectic in working with cultural content generated by art makers. Currently, she is developing the methodology which supports the foundation of a performance-based trans-disciplinary platform for a spectral critique on art production.

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