Atong Atem

Melbourne-based, South Sudan-born artist Atong Atem’s vibrant palette and beautifully stylised imagery draws the viewer into a narrative that belies its facade. Atem’s work is driven by a socially aware and politically astute reclamation of the ethnographic imagery of the past. In her contributions towards the decolonisation of the depiction of African people, she celebrates the work of African photographers who came before her by turning the lens back on herself and her community.

Your photographic works are beautifully staged and finished in colour by hand. Can you speak to the technical and artistic influences in your practice, in particular your ‘Studio Series’?
The ‘Studio Series’ was directly influenced by the works of studio photographers across Africa who directly challenged the European, ethnographic lens of most early photos of African people. I was initially inspired by photo and video technologies as weapons or tools that were used by colonisers to further their colonial plans.

It’s really interesting to me that the first depictions of black people seen by outsiders and even by other black folks were ones that framed black bodies in such a potent way that socially those frames still exist today. More than that though, I’m interested in the moment in history when black people took the camera and chose to photograph ourselves for ourselves. Photographers like Malick Sidibe, Seiydou Keita, Philip Kwame Apagya have really influenced the way I think about image making and the power of photography.

The images you produce seem to effortlessly exude both domesticity and glamour. How do you go about ‘setting the scene’ and selecting your models?
I have a really solid internal image catalogue, I think. That’s the only way I can describe the process because it’s really simple. There’s also a catalogue of visual languages that come from my immediate family, elements of South Sudanese, Dinka culture, so-called Australian iconography and so on. I’ve been making visual art for a long time so I think over time I’ve refined my own visual language which makes it easy for me to figure out how to dress and style my photos.

With the ‘Studio Series’, for example, the people I photographed understood my frame of reference so when I said ‘family photos’ they understood that very specific reference to the stylised studio photos of our relatives. In short, the effortlessness comes from years of research and faith in my own visual language.

Can you share the evolution of your career from an architecture student to a photographer. What drives your practice?
I initially studied architecture out of a sense of duty and compromise from feeling stifled by migrant guilt but eventually I grew up and realised I’m the only one living my life and no-one else will be accountable for my joy or personal definition of success. Feeling like I left an easier path behind after dropping out of architecture has made me work way harder than I thought possible – so that’s a plus, I guess!

In your series ‘Wethi’, you have created a dynamic aesthetic. Can you describe the process and intention behind these images?
The ‘Wethi’ series was made in Syracuse while I was there in summer 2018 as artist in residence at Lightwork. My photographic practice has mostly centred on black, and specifically South Sudanese, young people in Australia as that’s where I am and who I’m surrounded by, so it was kind of incredible to find something similar in Syracuse. The young men I photographed are South Sudanese and have grown up in Syracuse. There was an intense familiarity that I wasn’t expecting and the portraits, which are softer but more manipulated than my usual work, speak to that. These portraits are more about my relationship to a community, and a global one at that, than they are about storytelling or presenting any one thing. I think all my work is about a broad sense of place and belonging and that to me is most evident in works like ‘Wethi’ – which is the Dinka word for young men.

In 2018 you were awarded the prestigious MECCA M-Power Scholarship. What does this achievement mean to you?
The recognition I received from the award is really great and I can’t understate what it means to me but I think it came with the realisation that there aren’t many people with my specific point of view making art within my context receiving recognition or even acknowledgment. I think, regardless of my own personal motivations, having any sort of presence, especially on extremely global platforms like Instagram, means something.

It mightn’t mean much to the global art world at large but my work and who I am matters in some ways to the people who speak my languages and understand my positionality, and maybe relate to my work on a personal level. There’s a sense of responsibility to respect that in some way. I’m still figuring it out, but I care about what any recognition I receive means, especially for those who are most impacted by my work.

This interview was original published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019

EXHIBITIONS

NGV Triennial
19 December 2020 – 18 April 2021
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Atong Atem: Monstera Obliqua
2 February – 7 March  2021
MARS Gallery, Melbourne

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