Atong Atem is a South Sudanese artist and writer living in Narrm/Melbourne. Her work explores migrant narratives, postcolonial practices in the diaspora and the exploration of identity through portraiture. Atem is interested in decoloniality in practice and investigates concepts of home and identity through a critical and sentimental lens in both her writing and art.
You are from Bor in South Sudan but have lived in Australia since you were 6. How have these diverse cultures impacted on your work and how have you been able to reclaim your identity and resolve conflicting feelings stemming from migration and belonging?
Growing up with a South Sudanese, Dinka family who was, and continues to be deeply proud of their culture has helped shape me in many ways. I found it frustrating as kid that we had to attend cultural events and were discouraged from speaking English too frequently at home but with hindsight, I’m so grateful for it. Of course as migrants, especially as refugees, the immediate instinct is to assimilate as much as possible and seamlessly fall into the culture you’ve adopted rather than to bring your culture with you. That desire to assimilate is what caused me the most distress growing up. As much as I wanted to fit in and as much as the society I grew up in demanded that of me, I could never and will never be Australian, let alone Australian enough. What I mean is that national identities are intangible enough to begin with, and when they exist in opposition to your cultural heritage and exist to dismiss the colonial history of a country— they become damaging.
I love where I live though! I grew up in a beautiful place on Guringai and Darkinjung land on the east coast of Australia. My upbringing was predominantly great in Australia but being an outsider meant that I was always reminded of my otherness and encouraged to dislike it. My family’s strong cultural identity helped me to navigate this idea of being ‘between cultures’ to come to a place of comfort and security in my cultural pride and acknowledgment of my personal identity as a displaced person.
How would you describe the contemporary art scene in Australia and its receptiveness to art from the African continent?
The contemporary art scene in Australia, from my experience, is extremely varied. There are the huge institutions like NGV in Melbourne, and the NSW Gallery of Art in Sydney, which uphold Eurocentric ideals of art for the most part, having very poor representations of first nations peoples in their exhibitions and curatorial staff but there are also galleries like the Australian Centre for Photography, which I recently worked with, Blak Dot Gallery and countless artist-run spaces that are working to be more honest and ethical with their approach to art. Blak Dot Gallery is especially brilliant because it’s a new contemporary indigenous art gallery run by an indigenous artist/curator who routinely shows works by first nations artists. I feel that it’s not only ethical but necessary for art galleries and museums to reflect the history of the places they exist in and when that history is disproportionately European in Australia, the problem is, to me, glaringly obvious. I would love to see the art scene in Australia become more receptive of African art, I’d love for the scene to be more receptive of first nations art first.
What would you say is attributable to your success at a relatively early stage in your career, considering that you are not based in a more established centre for art like London or New York?
I honestly think it has to do with the Internet and social media. I’ve been very active online and most people see my work for the first time on Instagram or on facebook. That and the fact my ‘Studio’ series was received at a time when Afrocentrism and the visual languages associated with it are exceptionally popular. There are so many artists, African and otherwise, who have work very similar to mine, gaining a lot of praise, most of whom have been making this work for years. Pop culture and social media have allowed billions of people access to art and visual languages that they would not have otherwise been exposed to.
I’m excited by social media and its potential because it means that existing so physically far away from people similar to me, whether culturally or racially, doesn’t mean what it meant 20 years ago when my family first moved to Australia, the potential for connection now is almost endless and taken for granted.
What does the growing development of photography and video across Africa portend for the continent?
Africa is such a diverse continent and we’ve all often been unfortunately connected through the commonality of colonial trauma or racial stereotypes. We’ve always been diverse in our cultures, and diverse in our art and artforms but it’s still a journey to show that.
It’s exciting to me that globally, new media art is taken more seriously because it means that the diversity and ingenuity of artists from the continent can be celebrated. It’s exciting to see people from my community accepting my photography video works as art when not long ago I didn’t see them as such.
Photography also gives the artist the opportunity to easily document their world or their lives, and it’s amazing for me to see young African artists showing their world and their communities through their lens. It’s powerful to have control of your image and how you’re depicted to the world and to have growing access to photo and video tools, as well as online platforms to share those works. It is honestly phenomenal.
Your photographs incorporate rich backdrops and props, much in the tradition of greats like Malick Sidibe and more recently, Hassan Hajjaj. Where do the similarities end?
This is a great question! I didn’t see that coming at all. I think where the similarities end is of little consequences because for me those works were about finding a visual language close to home to talk about myself and my relationship to the world. It came from being exhausted from using the coloniser’s language for so long. That being said, creating the works that I do as a displaced person, a migrant in another colonised territory is important and a big difference. I think there is a sense of nostalgia in my works and the fact that they are reflective of the past is important. While Malick Sidibe and the like were at “home” with their photography—my works in some way are attempts for me to bridge the gap between here and home and to speak in a language that home understands. So maybe the main difference is the intention behind the works; I want to be slot in somewhere along the path they’ve paved whereas I feel there was a purer, less self-conscious motivation behind traditional studio photography; one of celebration and proud display of oneself and the power of that message within a colonial and decolonial context. They presented a vision of home that I’d never been presented with, and I now want to make my way there.
Are your sitters randomly selected, or do they share some of your personal experiences, as well as tensions that may have arisen from shifts in identity?
The models are all friends of mine who I was very honoured to meet here in Melbourne. Most of whom I met through a young black and political collective called Still Nomads. It was the first space where I felt seen and heard, and where I encountered people who were so like me in so many ways. All creative, all black, all navigating the complexities of life as a young black person and all willing to engage with the work I wanted to make.
Alongside an active photography career, you work across video and writing. How have these separate genres converged in communicating your thoughts and ideas?
I use a whole range of media because it feels most comfortable to create something whether a drawing, a poem or a dress and look back to see how it fits into my greater body of work. I guess my approach to art is equal parts nonchalant and extremely attached so everything I do is kind of raw and unrefined but very, very dear to me. I think all my art is part of an ongoing self-portrait, which gives me a ton of freedom because no one can tell me how I should represent or depict myself. My ideas and thoughts aren’t unique and my work is like a fictionalised memoir so I have a lot of breathing room as an artist.
What’s next for Atong Atem?
I’ve only ever made art in Australia and within the context of my identity so I would like to make art in South Sudan and investigate my pre-existing ideas from a context that hinges on a totally different aspect of my identity. At the moment I have a show, The Process of Feeling at CCP in Fitzroy, Melbourne and another show at the US in Sydney at Customs House with the Australian Centre for Photography. I’m also working on showing some video works towards the end of the year so I don’t know what’s next for me! I’m just riding this wave and seeing where it can take me.