Atong Atem is an artist based in Melbourne, Australia. I was fortunate enough to see some of her ornate and poignant photography work in an exhibition recently, and thought it completely necessary to interview her for this column. Atong is concerned with representation and celebration of blackness, and is proud of her South Sudanese heritage. Dissatisfied with a lack of dialogue around these issues at university, she sought to make photographs that subverted this dissatisfaction, to make something beautiful and triumphant with it.
Atong generously spoke to me about growing up in a very white Australia, her first forays into photography, and her mission in decolonizing and critiquing Eurocentric narratives.
MINNA GILLIGAN: I came across something very poignant in your interview with i-D magazine. You said that as a child you would automatically use the peachy, pale pink crayons to color your skin in drawings until a teacher confronted you to ask why you weren’t using the brown crayons. Do you see that moment as a trigger for the profound proudness you have for your racial and cultural identity, or were there other instances that heightened this along the way?
ATONG ATEM: Every black or minority kid has that moment of realization, and it doesn’t necessarily trigger anything other than a sudden and overwhelming [understanding] of who you are in the world. It was in that moment that I [discovered] that all the negative things ascribed to black bodies that I had heard must then apply to me. And the anger I felt at that is what triggered a journey to love and pride.
My family has always been political, not so much by choice but by circumstance. I became aware of colonialism before I knew the word for it. It affected my family in horribly tangible ways that led us to Australia. As a kid, I was more critical of my parents. But over time, [I began] to notice how right they were. I realized that someone’s race and gender become who they are in the world, regardless of how much they want to be known for anything else.
Was there a particular time in your life that you deliberately decided to use photography to express what it was you wanted to communicate? Or, was it a more organic progression?
I was in my second year at university (fourth year of art school all together) and I was doing absolutely nothing. I was writing a lot of notes in my lectures and tutorials about everything that I thought was wrong with them. And because I was kinda paranoid from boredom, I wrote some of those scathing notes like letters to the editor but in Dinka, even though I don’t know how to write in Dinka. I phonetically spelled out the words.
I was essentially making no work, and not engaging with any of the theory because it made me furious. And so, I started reading and re-reading de-colonial texts. It was through a late night of doing everything but my assignments that I came across the works of Philip Kwame Apagya. He’s a Ghanaian photographer who’s known for studio photography with painted “fantasy” backdrops that the models engage with. One of my favorites is of a painted backdrop of a private jet and the model is posed to seem like they’re walking into the plane. When I saw those works, I was completely inspired and I messaged my friends the day after to take the photos.
At the time, I didn’t have a specific thing that I wanted to communicate, but I’ve always been interested in decolonizing and critiquing Eurocentric narratives. So, when I found art that I really loved that didn’t center whiteness, or even acknowledge it, and was created for and by black African people to celebrate and display us in our own de-colonial gaze, […] I knew I wanted to emulate what I got out of those works.
When you approach the beginning of a studio shoot, how do you decide on whom you will be photographing? Your models offer so much wisdom, intelligence, and often cheekiness, in their gazes. Do you have relationships with them prior to shooting?
I’ve never actually made an active decision to photograph anyone. It’s all luckily happened very naturally in collaboration with my friends. I don’t shoot often because I don’t have a digital camera, but mostly because I’m terrible at forcing things I’m not feeling.
The first series, which I showed at Red Hook Labs and Gertrude Contemporary, happened after I messaged a bunch of my friends. The half who showed up got photographed and we had a really fun time.
My models offer so much because they’re not models, they’re not hired, they’re just friends doing a favor for another friend. Most of the photos I’ve taken have been entirely collaborative. In the first series, my friends brought along some of the flowers, scarves, and outfits. We mixed all our things together with the same frame of reference—studio photographs in all our family albums. When we collaboratively dressed the scenes, it was incredibly simple and fun and something that I keep replicating because it works for me. It’s not artificial in any way, even though it’s a constant replication of cultural iconography.
You’ve also said that your studio shoots, “Emulate the studio photography that was introduced to many parts of Africa by the British.” Your compositions are very formal, but within that framework you introduce bustling printed fabrics, fake flowers, vases, and bold accessories. I love the juxtaposition of this. You’re challenging or destroying the traditional notions of studio portrait photography *from the inside*—would you agree?
Visually, my inspiration comes from the clothes across Africa that use Dutch wax fabrics; different traditional hairstyles; the act of braiding; Dinka songs and dances; 1960s Hollywood musicals (especially starring Barbra Streisand); contemporary black artists like Wangechi Mutu, Yinka Shonibare, Zanele Muholi, and Kara Walker; my sister’s singing, science-fiction novels, especially dystopian; and the YouTube videos that you realize you zoned out from hours ago.
More specifically in my Studio Series, my inspiration was the first African studio photographers I came across, namely Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibe, and Philip Kwame Apagya. These works, which I was drawn to because they resembled photos of my parents and relatives that I had seen all my life, had really specific elements like the awkward poses, the fake flowers, the colorful backdrops and clothes; these are elements that I wanted to replicate. It’s such a comforting style of photography that is really symbolic of a modern Dinka home, and by extension, my home: a studio family portrait, a very ornate crucifix, crocheted armchair cozies, and fake flowers on an intricate TV unit.
When it comes to challenging studio photography from the inside though, my introduction to photography was this style of photography and was always with black African people wearing these kinds of clothes. I didn’t see white people until I was maybe four or five. As far as I knew, they were just like the Simpsons—made up characters—until I met them for real. And that was the same with art and photography which was always black (except maybe Jesus).
There’s an element of subversion in terms of historical depictions of Africans for sure, and I’m definitely transfixed on the importance of the moment when Africans started taking photos of Africans as opposed to Europeans depicting us ethnographically to appease their own colonial desires and narratives but that’s on the peripheries of my thoughts. It’s a major motivation behind my decision to do photography but my main motivation was celebration.
It’s not often that black folks can genuinely celebrate ourselves without the rest of the world sussing us out. I really want to emphasize the celebratory nature of these works. We were celebrating while we were shooting, we celebrated after the shoot, and will continue to celebrate.
Do you work with digital or analogue photography? What do you like best about your chosen medium?
When it comes to the art that I display publicly, I mostly work digitally because the things that I do with it are more about subject and set than technique. My friend gave me an old Minolta film camera last year and since I got it I’ve taken hundreds of photos of my friends and the stuff that’s regularly shared on Instagram.
I don’t really share that publicly, but I’ve been documenting these 20-something creatives in Australia in the 2010s. It seems to be something that a lot of 20-somethings are doing now, documenting their lives I mean, because there are so many pockets of the past which weren’t documented and maybe we’re a bit afraid of that potential future loss. And probably because the documentation that does exist from the past is romanticized.
Have you ever explored other mediums like drawing or painting? Perhaps just in experimentation or study?
I’ve only been taking photos since mid 2015, before this I was predominantly a painter and drawer who dabbled in weird video works. I still make a lot of video works, like one or two a week, but I don’t share them as often as other works because they’re mostly hilarious to me and I learned pretty early on that what’s hilarious to me is almost always universally unfunny. I also write a lot which I consider part of my practice.
What is your relationship with social media like? Do you see it as largely positive influence or space for your work to exist?
There’s so much I could say about social media but the most pivotal thing for me happened when I was a teen in the mid 2000s and discovered message boards, then Tumblr, and the social potential of the internet.
My family and I were the only black family in my whole city that I knew of, and if it wasn’t for the internet I’d probably not be as OK as I am today. It was really important for me to have access to other black folks who were into the Bad Brains, the Martian Chronicles, and all the teen identity stuff that was really important to me but wasn’t reflected in our media.
When you don’t see reflections of yourself anywhere outside your house and then you discover millions of iterations of yourself on your computer, as a kid, that’s incredibly life-changing.
You’ve been exhibiting a lot recently, in an exhibition in New York titled New African Photography, and in an exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, at the same time. Are you working towards any other exhibitions?
My close friends are all incredible artists and we’re constantly having really important conversations about ourselves and the world we live in that could never occur in any other context. I feel like a lot of those conversations will eventuate into some kind of exhibition.
Could you name some artists that you believe are making challenging or inspiring work at the moment?
I’m a really big fan of Frances Cannon’s work, we studied at university together and recently her works, which are beautiful line drawings of mostly proud women, have been getting a lot of attention. She has a really lovely message about body acceptance and self-love, and the fact that so many people are receiving her work so well shows how important it is.
And, my favorite artist is Gunai and Gunditjmara artist Arika Waulu. I don’t know of anyone, artist or otherwise, who’s made me become so aware of so many political, spiritual, and emotional realities in such a short amount of time and with such generosity. Arika’s work is about colonization, anthropology, and the hidden facets of Australia’s genocidal history. I’m so genuinely and constantly inspired by her.
Where do you see yourself and your art practice in five years?
I’ve thought a lot about the *distant* future but not necessarily the near-ish future. I guess, I see myself making art still but I’d like to be painting more. I’d like to be doing something with university, either continuing to study or maybe even teaching. I think I have some things to offer and if someone wants to pay to hear me, I wouldn’t say no.
Lastly, what are three words that describe your art practice?
Decolonizing, black, anti-minimalist. ♦