Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs and Malloy Curator
Tang Teaching Museum
Atong Atem, a visual artist and writer, is South Sudanese but was born in Ethiopia and spent her early years in a refugee camp in Kenya before emigrating to Australia at age six. Atem is a self-described “third culture kid,” a term used to describe someone who spends their formative childhood years in a culture or cultures other than that of their parents. For Atem, it means an identity that is both and neither: both South Sudanese and Australian, but feeling neither South Sudanese enough, nor Australian enough. Much of her work investigates her relationship to this history and the cultural confusion and uncertainty it engenders.
Atem currently lives and works in Melbourne— which she calls Narrm Melbourne, using the Woiwurrung word of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the indigenous people who lived there before European settlement. Atem is deeply concerned with the history of colonization and its current repercussions, the ways in which African culture is seen through a colonial lens, and the effects of that Eurocentric narrative on black bodies both within Africa and across the diaspora—concerns that she explores in her art and her writing.
In Fruit of the Earth, a self-portrait, Atem poses adorned with flowers and fruit, her body filling the shallow space of the photograph, her eyes closed. She applies color digitally to the black-and-white image, as if hand-coloring a vintage photograph. Atem sees self-representation—her photographs are mainly of herself and her friends—as a form of empowerment and is interested in critiquing imposed narratives and in decolonizing the black body. She has studied vintage African studio photography and the work of Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and Philip Kwame Apagya and says, “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.” (1)