Photography by Rahkela

Photography by Rahkela

As Nataal’s New African Photography exhibition at Red Hook Labs approaches, we introduce the artists who make up our group show

Meet Atong Atem. This talented South Sudanese artist and writer is currently living in Melbourne where she is studying at RMIT. Her work explores postcolonial practices in the diaspora, the relationship between public and private spaces and the politics of looking. Her work has been featured in i-D and Okayafrica and was recently exhibited at The Brisbane Powerhouse Museum, where she won the inaugural MELT Portrait Prize. Atong will be exhibiting in the US for the first time with Nataal and Red Hook Labs.

Tell us about your upbringing.
My family is South Sudanese but I was born in Ethiopia and spent my first few years in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. We left for Australia in 1997 and ended up in NSW. I grew up with a fairly strong sense of identity because of the cultural pride that is so important to a lot of South Sudanese people, and because we were incredibly isolated as non-white people in our neighbourhood. My family escaped war and a politically hostile environment and looked to Australia for better and safer opportunities. For that reason, and because both of my parents are really intelligent, politically conscious people, school and learning in general was really important in our household. I was drawn to reading and writing as a kid because storytelling has been at the core of many of our traditions.

Describe your creative circle in Melbourne?
I moved to Melbourne from Sydney about two years ago. My connections are in the wider black and African communities of artists, which include a lot of young South Sudanese people doing incredible things. There are powerful activist communities forging strong relationships of solidarity between non-Indigenous black peoples and Indigenous black peoples. It’s in these communities that I’ve grown the most in terms of my political and social awareness and my personal identity by extension.

I didn’t really think of taking my art and the arts in general seriously as a black African woman until I came to Melbourne and saw people like me doing what I want to do. The arts is still overwhelmingly white and inaccessible for people of colour, Indigenous peoples and women but the fact these communities are creating their own spaces is what makes this city worth staying in for me.

Tell us about your studies.
When I finished high school I wanted to go to art school but I had deep migrant kid guilt and wanted to do right by my parents so I compromised and studied architecture. I didn’t have a terrible time, but it really wasn’t for me and I dropped out. I eventually went to art school at Sydney University, and now in Melbourne. There are lots of things I’ve been exposed to at uni that I otherwise wouldn’t have come across and the resources are incredible, but most of the knowledge I’ve gained has truly come from my close and extended networks and the internet. That’s not to say that institutional education in general doesn’t have a place; there are many people who blossom in them, I’m just not necessarily one of them. It’s difficult for me in a lot of ways but namely because of the emphasis on histories that are colonial and are only challenged in ways that uphold colonialism and eurocentrism. The few times we’ve discussed Indigenous Australian art for example, the conversation is anthropological at best. Even discussions of colonialism fail to recognise that the world is not postcolonial and “cured” of the problems brought on by colonialism.

Please describe your artistic practice today.
My practice is very broad; I write and make all kinds of visual art - photography and video at the moment - and all of that is interconnected. Most of my work sits on a fairly political foundation but I don’t think of my work as political. I never decided to think politically or question the politics of race and gender and class, I just happened to be born into a world where my race and gender and class is highly politicised, and the intersections of those things makes it impossible for me to escape being a politicised body. That being said, I do love discussing those identities and histories within the framework of art. My art at its core is about myself and how I see the world and how the world sees me. Learning about who I am as the things I am, and who I am in South Sudan versus who I am in Australia and the flux of identities is what drives the discourse behind my practice.

Describe the images you are exhibiting with us at Red Hook Labs?
Third Culture Kids is what I like to call the Studio Series and was in fact my first foray into photography. I created these works early last year just to see if I could translate the visual language of my paintings with an influence from studio photographers across Africa such as Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita and Phillip Kwame Apagya. What draws me to the studio photographers of Africa is the power in the simple gesture of turning the lens onto ourselves and changing the European narrative of photography from one of ethnography and consumption, to one of ownership on our part. Studio photography became something entirely different when we, as Africans, embraced the medium, and that’s what my works are paying homage to - the radical gaze of black studio photography.

The fact that these works are made by me, and made in Australia and the ways that colonialism in Australia is and is not different from colonialism in South Sudan and across Africa is what’s interesting to me. The concept of a third culture identity - that is children of migrants who grow up away from their parents’ country - is definitely a big part of this series. It’s an exploration of displacement and the inherent connections we have to the places we’ve left and maybe never feel completely connected to. Culture is so much more than the things we do, there’s a cellular connection to our cultures that goes beyond our appearance but there’s something important about being able to take our icons and visual language and to hold onto them and say “this is mine” and truly feel it.

What messages do you hope visitors to the Nataal exhibition will come away having seen your work?
I just want to impart a sense of power. These are powerful people because of the histories that are present in their gaze and in their clothes and faces. The imagery is about iconism in a way that isn’t arrogant but about the continuation of culture, the acknowledgment of history and the possibility of a future that is black and cultural and strong. I also want people to look at these photos and think, ‘Damn, Atong’s friends are so attractive’.

Who inspires you?
Within the art world, I’ve always been hugely inspired by Yinka Shonibare - the influence of his work and ideas on my own is pretty evident. I’m also inspired by music - specifically the queen of hip hop in Australia, Sampa the Great who gives me so much life, and everything that Nina Simone has ever sung. Seeing other black women create and succeed is one of the most encouraging things for me because to this very day, we’re still told that we’re incapable and unworthy. The reality couldn’t be further from that - black women are so capable and so worthy and so amazing!

What have been some of your proudest moments so far?
One was when my mum came to an awards night for an art prize I won. She was with my little sister taking photos on her iPad and beaming with so much joy. I’ve only seen my mama that happy at graduations and the reason it makes me excited is because of what it represents to me to see her supporting my art. There’s such an emphasis on survival as migrants in a new and difficult country and survival means being safe - through the streets, through your fashion choices and especially through education and career choices. My parents weren’t very happy to hear I’d dropped out of architecture to go to art school, and understandably so. To see my parents supporting these risks means they have faith in me and in what I do, and as much as I’m an independent woman, my family have played a huge role in my identity and ideas and art today. Their faith and support is ridiculously magical and important to me.

What are your current projects?
I’ve just worked on an album cover for an amazing local band and I have the Ua numi le fau group exhibition coming up at Gertrude Contemporary in May, curated by Léuli Eshraghi, which I’m excited for because I’ll be alongside some incredible artists. I’m writing too and have recently been involved with the up and coming London-based publication Gal-Dem. I also have collaborated the Alterity Collective – we have some community-based projects in the pipeline.

What are your future plans?
I want to expand the conceptual framework around my body of work as much as possible, and a lot of these ideas I have around politicised bodies and identities change and evolved based on location and local, as well as global histories. I’d like to make art in South Sudan and across Africa and create networks with other black African artists across the globe. Long term, I’d like to have the time and resources to be able to make art and create dialogues that are as expansive as our histories.


Nataal: New African Photography at Red Hook Labs,
133-135 Imlay St, Brooklyn, New York 11231
On view: 7-15 May, 2016

Words Helen Jennings

Visit Atong Atem
Visit Red Hook Labs