Pulling Apart Elements from History to Speak to My Own Presence
In conversation with Monash Senior Lecturer Peta Clancy, artists Salote Tawale and Atong Atem reflect on their lived experience from a diasporic perspective and how it has informed and shaped their identities and image making. Speaking to her Indigenous Fijian and Anglo-Australian heritage, Salote will examine the cultural materiality of the image in relation to diasporic identity. Ethiopian born, South Sudanese artist and writer Atong will reflect on the ways in which their practice has been informed and influenced by the history of African photography—in particular, ethnographic photographic images and the ethical issues inherent to working in this space.
Presented as part of PHOTO2022.
I've lived on this Country for my entire life. This land and its waterways have sustained, nurtured and held me carefully and deeply over these years. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and to all First Nations people present here today. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land. My cultural heritage is mixed, like so many of us. I'm a proud Bangerang woman, and feel deeply connected to my Bangerang ancestry. My grandmother's father was born in our traditional Country at Cummeragunja Mission. It's complex, though. Having said this, I also acknowledge that my grandfather was of English heritage. I'm also a descendant of the colonisers and pay my respects, and I'm truly sorry for the past oppression, racism and genocide perpetuated by these ancestors.
I outline this aspect of my heritage in relation to the diasporic nature of Australia and its complexities as a starting point for our conversation today. To give a visual description of myself, I'm sitting here with a little bit of pink on my chest, and I have brown hair. It's tied back. I have my glasses on, reading glasses, and a warm cardigan. In the background is an installation photograph of one of my installations at the Bendigo Art Gallery. It's a 19th century space. I'm delighted to say that joining me today, as I mentioned, is Atong Atem, who is an Ethiopian born, South Sudanese artist and writer living in Naarm, who was recently awarded the La Prairie Art Award, which involved acquisition of her work in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, and an international residency in Zurich in June. Atong's work has been exhibited at the Messums Gallery in London, Red Hooks Labs in New York, Vogue Fashion Fair in Milan, and Unseen Amsterdam Art Fair. She is represented by MARS Gallery, Melbourne.
Salote Tawale has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial at Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane in 2021, as well as at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, ACCA (Australian Center for Contemporary Art), and Parasite, Hong Kong. In 2020, Salote was awarded both the Mackellar and Adrian Fini artist fellowship from the Sheila Foundation, and the Mosman art prize. In 2017, she was awarded the Create New South Wales Visual Arts Fellowship. I would like to invite Atong, who if you would like to start and to present some of your work, Salote and Atong will be talking about some of their artwork, and then we'll be having an open conversation based on their artwork and things that come up, and responding to their artwork and what we feel is important to talk about. Atong.
Atong Atem: Thank you so much, Peta. I'll give a quick visual description of myself as well. I'm a dark-skinned black woman. I'm sitting in a room that has a white brick wall. I've got a framed print behind me. I'm wearing a brown sweater, tiny little coloured beads, a grey sweater underneath it, and hexagonal glasses. Yes. I'll start by sharing the work that I think is most relevant to this topic of discussion, which is my series called "Banksia," which I made in 2020 as part of Rising Festival, which I unfortunately wasn't able to launch until this year because of COVID. This is work that although it's been worked on for so, so long and has existed for multiple years, hasn't really been seen by many people, so I'm really, really excited to start actually sharing it.
I'll actually begin with a short excerpt of the film, which is eight minutes long. I'll play about, I don't know, a minute and a half of it, and we can see if that's too long. Then I'll also share some stills from it that I also exhibited and will be exhibiting this year as well. Let's go. I never know exactly when to cut it off. Yeah, here are some of the stills from it that compliment the video work. "Banksia" came about as a response to initially a series that I made for the Immigration Museum as part of Photo Festival 2020. In my research for that work, which ended up being a series of portraits of friends of mine that I made that were exhibited in that main corridor that leads to the outside area of the Immigration Museum, and they were very tall, floor to ceiling portraits, I couldn't not do research about the space that I was exhibiting in, which was the Immigration Museum, which has historically or in the past was a site for migrants to either be approved or not approved to migrate here.
That got me sort of curious about my relationship to this place as a migrant, my relationship to the Australian colonial project as a migrant whose permission to be here, so to speak, was granted by colonial powers. It was just an interesting dialogue, I suppose, with myself and my own identity as a migrant and what that means, and I suppose permission and all of that sort of stuff. That research led me becoming really, really interested and fascinated in the ways that migration policies have changed so much in the history of this country, and how migrants have historically been used as tools to further the colonial project. We're often pawns whose positionality is used, I suppose, in a lot of ways to not necessarily support our own identities and cultures, but to validate Australia or the colonial kind of narrative of this country. I wanted to make a work then after the Immigration Museum work that was parodying orientalist depictions of peoples, my people, South Sudanese people, and how those depictions have been used as this weird pseudo celebration of culture within colonial powers.
But then I also wanted to talk about that sense of safety that comes from being able to position ourselves within this almost condensed version of cultural practices and condensed versions of cultural celebration and pride and all of this sort of thing. Yeah, "Banksia" came out of that, and it was much about me telling my own relationship to migration and my own formulation of identity as a migrant and how often that changes, how fleeting it is, how temporal it is, how much it relates to where I am at the current point, and the fact of my migrant identity specifically pivoting on who I'm speaking to when I'm talking about that. Who I am as a migrant changes depending on whether I'm speaking to my mother or speaking within the art context, or speaking to first nations peoples here, or speaking to people in South Sudan.
Yeah, the work is about that, but also about how my understanding of myself as a South Sudanese person is extremely personal, even in a way that I didn't fully come to terms with until I started making this work in the sense that a lot of the things that I've decided are cultural identifiers and cultural signifiers or whatever are actually just familial. So, there's a lot of unpacking that C word, culture, and what that actually is and how much of it is mythology, how much of it is mythologised. In coming to terms with that personal mythologising of my own ancestry, it kind of gave me the idea or the conception of "Banksia" as this thing where I'm using these sort of Western mythologies, like Greek mythology and all this hugely colonial visuals, I suppose, to create these other mythologies around South Sudanese migration in Australia within my own lens as a singular person who creates mythologies constantly anytime I talk about my identity. That's basically it.
Peta Clancy: Yeah. That's really fascinating, really fascinating when you speak about making the work in the context of the Immigration Museum and in the context of those bureaucratic colonialist gatekeepers, and moving from the personal to seeing immigration in relationship to you and your experience, but seeing it from a much more objective perspective, and then moving back to personal and reflecting on familial cultural materiality. Yeah. Really interesting. Thank you. There's so much for us to talk about, and I'd really love to speak more, which we will. Salote, if you'd like to talk a bit about your practice, that would be great.
Salote Tawale: I mean, there's so much we could just talk about Atong's practice right now, but I'll acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, who are the traditional custodians of the land in which I come to you from today, just recognising that sovereignty was never ceded, and as a person of settler colonial and Indigenous Fijian heritage, that's the position I come to you from now, not only as a person talking today, but in my arts practice. Just to describe myself, I'm wearing a black t-shirt with white pinstripes. I have a mop of unkept curly hair on the top of my head, and have a roundish face with freckles. The background is a blurry version of the background of my house. There's just some dark shapes behind me.
I really appreciate being here to hear you talk about that, Atong, actually. I'm just going to maybe switch what I talk about just based on what I heard you talk about just then. Let me share my screen. Yeah. My position is also a focus in my work. It always has been. Quite often, the works are a mixture of my researching into archives, personal experiences, experiences of popular culture, experiences of culture as a person living in the diaspora. This work that I just wanted to talk about, and I'm just going to work from my website here, is a work that was actually a long time in the making. It comes from a residency I had in the UK, looking at ethnographic imagery and objects from the Cambridge collection of Fijian stuff, they've got heaps of Fijian stuff there, and also Quai Branly in Paris.
But in actual fact, it all comes together when I had this weird conversation with a French philosophy student at a party. I was sitting with my friends, and this guy was sitting on the right of me and no one was talking to him. I just turned to him to say hi, and he started telling me about his life. I was like, "I didn't really enjoy philosophy when I was at uni, just because the philosophers that we talked about, it didn't really engage with my experience." He was like, "What do you mean?" And got really, I don't know, not aggressive, but really flustered. He was like, "Do you hate white men?" Literally, I was like, "Well, I just was talking about art school." Then I go, "This is my friend Will." He's like, "Hiya." He's like, "he's a white man. I think he's okay. We're friends." I was sort of just joking, but we got into this whole discussion.
Then all of a sudden, he pops out with the sentence, "I don't see colour," as if absolving himself from any kind of thoughts or feelings of being a racist person. That really shocked me, because I was like... I don't know, why did it shock me? I guess I'd never blatantly had this conversation with someone before. I said, "How can you not see colour? Who's cleaning the streets of Paris?" He's talking about being in Paris, and I'm like, of all places to not see colour. I really thought about it, and it kind of stuck with me, because I'm doing all this other research, but this conversation I've had with this guy is there. I start to work through it through a series of paintings that end up these hanging paintings that you see before you now of these half-alive, half-dead face structures that hang in the air. They're hanging on pulleys and they're held up by these architectural fixtures like bricks and things like that.
It was at PICA in Perth, and West End Gallery is quite a well known gallery, and there's been many exhibitions in it. I was trying to find a way to create a different kind of space in that gallery whilst thinking about, "I don't see colour." So, I decided to blast colour into the situation and fight the architecture. If I just go down here, there's a set of windows on the left, I was trying to use this pattern, which is sort of like a woven Pandanus map kind of a pattern, to reorient the audience, because I had been reoriented by... this whole conversation had changed my experience of my research and looking at Fijian stuff, because I'm spending every day thinking, "What do you mean you don't see colour?" You can get fixated on little things like that.
So, I really was just thinking about how we try and absolve ourselves of the way that society brings us up with and how sometimes those attitudes are focused at us, and sometimes they're attitudes that we take on ourselves, just because I guess the colonial project society is kind of relentless in the way that the structures affect how we behave in them. That's why I'm really trying to do things like literally create other kinds of structures for my history, and also affect the architecture and structures in the work, and in a way, create a different kind of image in the experience of the viewer. Also, quite often, I have these temporary rooms, which for me have a personal significance. In Fiji, whenever we have something big like a funeral or a birthday or a wedding, usually these temporary rooms in the village or in the cities are brought up so people can stay in them, their kitchens.
But for me, they've been like schools where I learn about my family, I learn about my culture in a way that a person in the diaspora has to when you revisit again and again. Within that space too, I'm making this work at the beginning of, say, 2020, and all of a sudden the pandemic happens. I've had this research period, I'm making these paintings, I'm thinking about the issues with the structure and how it affects the attitudes of people, and how important it is not only who's visiting places, but who are making the decisions for places, for institutions, say. I'm also thinking about climate change, because that's also a part of it. It's attached to the colonial project neoliberalism. It's attached to... I'm from the Pacific, it's a very relevant conversation right now. It should be a relevant conversation for us here in Australia.
It's I think very relevant for places that have snow and summer, because they are noticing those changes more in what the winter is like, that kind of thing. As you can tell, a lot of things are happening for me during this. I think that comes through with how many elements make up this work, actually. It's quite overwhelming. At the same time, I'm writing every day my thoughts and feelings, going through these little... it wasn't originally in the show, but I start making my own face shields as a way to deal with being in lockdown, and just discussing face shields with people. You know you see those pictures of... There were people with their kids that have a plastic bottle on their head? I kept thinking, "Genius, what a great way to recycle, but also protect your children."
I create this video work, which I'll just show a bit of an excerpt of. The video work really is me editing these thoughts I'm having and feelings that I'm having, and trying to find a poetic way to create a video about it. Oops, that's an another video. So many videos, guys. I use myself in a lot of my work. A big part of that is because I feel like maybe there's more empowerment in turning the camera on myself rather than taking pictures of others. In what I try to do in the position I'm coming from in the way I work, I also had this sort of drama beginning to my life, and I was almost going to be an actor. So, I feel like I get the nuance out of a performance from what I... I'm pretty selfish. I just want to work my way, you know? Also, I think I'm getting older and grumpier. I don't know.
"Sometimes I sit in the wind, let it pass over me. It feels as if it's trying to work its way through, into the crevices and holes in my body, to get the stink out. The negativity sticks to me like a sludge, overwhelming in its centuries of hardened power, set into the wood, metal, stone and concrete, pretending to be absolute. The wind and water can only soften the blow. In my dreams, I wake up every morning, go directly to the ocean. As I plunge into the waves, the thick sea closes around me, holding me with its power. I can't breathe, but I glide freely. The ocean allows me to-"
I'll just stop there. I mean, it's sort of like a real departure for me to actually talk about my feelings in something, but I felt like the pandemic just made me reorient. Humour is usually a huge part of my work, and I just didn't feel humorous at the time of making this video. So, a lot of it, the video, it also ends up being a response to in a way this argument I have with this guy at a party that I barely know that sticks with me, because I think that's what happens when you're caught in structures or you're caught in what is the normal every day, and then something happens that is so disturbing to you that you replay it again and again.
So, in a way, the clunkyness of that video is really a part of the clunkyness of the experience. It's sort of important to me to try in some way to get the audience to experience something that might be like or near to what was happening for me at the time. But, yeah, I guess I just wanted to show that work, because I think positionality is really important as a contemporary artist, especially a contemporary artist in Australia. I really just like the way that you talked about that, Atong.
Atong Atem:Yeah. I'm super excited for us to delve into each other's work.
Salote Tawale: Yeah.
Peta Clancy: It's really amazing. You've both spoken about making work in response to these colonial institutions and institutions of power, and pushing back and bringing your own positionality, but also your own power and your own strength. I just wanted to say, Salote, that experience with the philosopher sounded awful, and was totally not validating your own experience or anyone's experience. To just say something like that, that's traumatic.
Salote Tawale: It got me to read this... there's this book called "I'm Not Talking to White People About Race." Have you heard of that book? I just got it on tape and started listening to it in the studio, because I was thinking about people don't like to be challenged on that. The structure is invisible and can be this invisible block. Also, this guy was French, and like their whole national identity is about equality and liberty. But if you look at their history of curfews for Arab people, where's the equality there? It's just about not knowing your own self. But also, weirdly, after that, it was traumatic, but I got a whole show out of it, you know? I worked through some skills, you know?
Peta Clancy: Yeah. Yep. You mentioned that the pandemic was quite an introspective time. Atong, you mentioned that the work that you showed was created over a period of time, and it was stop start as a consequence of the pandemic. What I'm really interested in is how did it feel like making work in response to the Immigration Museum, but also what it actually stands for. Those video works, or that video, was that shot in the Immigration Museum?
Atong Atem: Yeah, a lot of it was shot in there. I think for me, it was really about confronting my own bullshit, to be honest, I guess because I came here at six and I didn't choose to be here and this, that and the other, it's very easy for me to feel excluded from conversations around settler privilege and that experience. I'm a migrant too and I'm black and blah, blah, blah, which is so, so relevant. But again, like Salote said, positionality is very, very important as a contemporary artist, because I have this discomfort with being in the Immigration Museum because of its history, obviously how it exists now, it's evolved a lot. Eventually, I wanted to show work there, and I had to reckon with the fact that the entire country is the Immigration Museum in that way. The entire country that I live in now has that same history and it is so that. It's wild for me to pick and choose where to feel comfortable here.
Atong Atem: So, yeah, it was sort of confronting that about myself. I think for a lot of migrant or non-white settlers, there's a lot of things to confront, especially when we live here and make work here that is about our place here or being here or whatever. It was very much about that. Yeah, I think it was about having these conversations with other people with similar experiences to me, and especially people who weren't my general, like my parents, for example, who had that direct physical, actual connection and experience with the war and the trauma that I've inherited, and speaking to them about their positionality and their relationship to migration. There's just so much space between myself and my experiences as someone who came here at six and I grew up here, and my accent's like this, and I can do more than just survive, I suppose, versus my parents, whose relationship to being in Australia, wanting to identify Australian pride in that citizenship and whatnot, it's such a gap.
So, it was really important for me to do the work myself within myself and my own community. By that, I mean personal familial connections to figure some shit out and figure it out through this work. Yeah. Because at the end of the day, all my work is about myself, my relationship to the world at large, and being a photographer and having that acknowledgement of the history of photography as this tool that was used to fabricate truth. There's this idea, and people still now, especially with Photo Festival coming up, there's a lot of conversations about the camera as this unbiased thing and this tool that is nothing but factual, which I totally disagree with. Having that history of photography and the camera and all of these sort of mediums that are now cool and fun, and still have their implicit power and weaponry removed in order to make them not weapons anymore.
It just felt really important for me to acknowledge my power or whatever, my position as a person who wields this weapon, and what does that mean when I depict people, and what does it mean for me to be behind a camera in the Immigration Museum, taking photos of these settler ships that came in as that's the start. But I just wanted to acknowledge that I'm not here because there was a war that happened when I was a baby, and then my parents ended up talking to the UN and then they came here and now I'm here. I'm here because of those ships that came here hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and I'm here because of that history. I wanted to make a very direct connection, and that lineage is my lineage, whether I like it or not. Yeah.
Again, similar to you, Salote, a million and one ideas coming out. I think a lot of that has been being able to stew in the pandemic and have nothing but your thoughts, and there's so much that has happened. I mean, I can't count how many times I've been asked to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd and all of this stuff. Positionality is a big thing right now, but it felt really bizarre to talk about blackness globally without talking about blackness here as a South Sudanese migrant and all of that stuff. So, yeah, the Immigration Museum sparked a lot of stuff, and it's only continued to spark so much more since then, to be honest.
Salote Tawale: It's really a good moment to recognise your own privileges within the fact that we are actually just making art and we are making works about whatever we're making, the fact that we have that voice says a lot about the privileges I guess that we have, but it is interesting that Black Lives Matter conversation too, because so many people were like, "Now with this Black Lives Matter movement, what are you the people you know saying?" I'm like, "Well, what about deaths in custody?" Because there's been lots of marches, there's been lots of people protesting trying to have a voice on that four years before Black Lives Matter. When somebody asked me that, I was like, "I can't comment on this American thing, actually, I can't comment on how maybe it's more palatable to hear about Black Lives Matter." I'm glad the conversation's here. I'm not saying that. It's just, like you're saying, what are the origins? What was happening before that that we didn't that black people didn't hear?
Peta Clancy: What are the layers?
Salote Tawale: What are the layers that are happening there? But I love how you're talking too about it's about those ships.
Atong Atem: Yeah.
Salote Tawale: If we really think about our position. Peta, what you were saying when you started about we all have these fraught histories, and they are about the colonial project, and they are histories. There isn't one. There's many there, because when you were talking too, sorry, another thing, and hopefully this isn't pushing it in the wrong direction, I went to a funeral in Fiji and everyone was filming the whole thing. Everyone had their cameras out, their iPads. I hadn't been to a funeral in Fiji, and I was like, "Wowza. What's happening here? Everybody's live feeding." I actually have a picture of everyone at the grave taking selfies, or a picture of 15 people taking a picture of 15 other people on the other side of the... it was this moment when I thought, because I stopped taking pictures of doing street photography a while ago, because I'm like, "Why am I taking these moments? What for?"
I was really considering, I guess, my position, right? What's the point of this? So, that's when I started to use myself in my work, and I'd also seen some feminist video works. I think we were in a show together when I first saw that story. Yeah. So, that changed the way that I thought about how I would use photography, and that's why I turned it on myself, because of the kind of legacy that I wanted my actions to sit in. Then when I'm at this funeral and watching this happen, and I'd also sat down and been given an album, and I was like, "Oh, because I haven't been in Fiji for a couple of years, it'll be like the kids going to school for the first time," or whatever, but it was actually the preparation of a body for burial.
I realised that actually also photography has been taken back and used in culture for not just the purposes of the colonial project recording and knowing everything, and incorrectly cataloging that, if I may say, but also for sharing moments when people can't be there and recording important family events. In that moment, I just felt really happy about photography, if that makes sense.
Peta Clancy: Atong, when we were talking, you were talking about the complexities of photography being this colonialist tool, but then for you, the importance and the significance and how you actually feel very emotionally connected to photography in relationship to photos of your family. I've spoken to one of the photography librarians at the State Library of Victoria, and for a lot of Aboriginal communities, these photographs, which were taken as colonialist objects are so precious for a lot of communities. I think there's this really strange power relationship where they're like these incredible talismans, or they're just really important cultural material.
Atong Atem: Yeah. I agree. There's also something... I've got a million and one thoughts all at once, so I'm going to try to catalog them, because I wanted to ask you, Salote, about, I suppose... well, not ask, but a comment on that funeral. I was nodding profusely because it's such a thing in South Sudan as well, where there's this weird thing, I'm just going to speak from brain to mouth, so there might be some synapses breaking as I speak, just trying to figure out my thoughts, but there's this interesting thing, I think part of maybe the danger or the weird relationship that I have to photography is this historically disgusting tool or this tool that has been used in historically disgusting ways. It's because there's almost a lack of reverence to the power of capturing imagery.
I remember as a kid hearing all these really messed up stories that I thought were just so racist, but in hindsight... anyway, just those stories and those ideas of some British dude will go to some country and photograph people, and the people would be like, "Oh, no, don't steal my soul," or whatever. I'd be like, roll my eyes, that's so racist. But so much is my thinking over time. It's like, "Please do not steal my soul, actually," because there's so much essentially ownership, so much power in the ability to depict someone in this scientific medium. So, it's not a painting where the artist is already given license to depict and present in whatever way they want, and it's already removed from reality just by the act of it being, whatever, painted. I love painting, but it's seen as it's just from this real thing to the technology to the result, it's nothing but truth.
I think those stories, and a lot of my family members have attested to some of those dialogues around photography being absolute reality, it comes from this understanding of what historically has been done with depictions, with portrayals, especially from colonial powers. I do find it really fascinating that now the reverence of photography means that there's a lot of people who culturally are inclined to use it as a tool to document, and that means documenting your actual day to day experiences in a way that leads to people documenting a funeral and documenting their actual positioning themselves within the frame of the funeral in a selfie or in weddings and all this stuff. It's like this almost, I don't know, I think a lot of western cultures see that as the opposite of reverence, but maybe it's false to hinder your desire to showcase your actual experience or something. I don't know. I'm still developing those ideas. But, yeah, I just find that really, really fascinating. I think to think around it... pardon?
Salote Tawale: Oh, sorry, I'm just saying there's a lot to think about. There's a lot to think around it about, because I did find myself in judgment, and then I was like, "What structure am I from that I'm..." I felt in that moment really Western about it, and you're right, that power that you're talking about, and that the depiction of, "Hey," by the grave site. I was like, it's a necessary thing for people who weren't there or to remember that moment, all those things that would be shunned here. You're right, when you talk about... sorry, I interjected, sorry, but when you were talking about the power of it, you also mentioned something earlier about being aware of your own creation of mythologies. I think they're all wrapped up in each other, aren't they?
One of them is an unconscious need to share with your community and to share your experiences, but it can look like you making TikToks or whatever in a different... I don't know, it looks different from a Western standpoint, maybe. Then the other is as a maker, there is power in the object. There is power in the image, especially when you are making work about legacies, histories, but you are shaping it as well.
Atong Atem: Yeah.
Salote Tawale: Understanding it in that remaking of history or retelling of a story or retelling of an idea, there is a kind of a pressure on you to be aware of this kind of power that you're talking about. Have I got that right in the way that you were talking about it?
Atong Atem: Yeah, absolutely. I think as you were speaking, I was thinking of... maybe the distinction I'm trying to make is between that self conscious use of depiction, the tools of depiction in a self conscious, "How will people perceive this thing? How do I manipulate this so that it presents what I'm showing the way that I want to show it?" Without acknowledging that that's what's happening when you're photographing or filming or recording, that you are creating a universe, just because the tools are neutral, doesn't mean you are, versus that unselfconscious, "It is what it is, I'm taking a selfie in front of a grave because I'm here." You know? Maybe that's the distinction I'm acknowledging or something. It's not to say that there's no tradition of that self-conscious universe making, mythology making in my culture, and that's what I do with a lot of my photography, is that sort of studio set up where the lighting, the costume, everything is set, but we're saying that we're doing that.
I'm not pretending that that's documentation devoid of my hands or my eye or my whatever. I think that's what made me so excited about the history of studio photography when I learned about it, because I learned about photography pretty chronologically unintentionally, and then I came across ethnographic photography and Smithsonian Museum archives of South Sudanese people. It was just like, that's so foul. Then before I had enough chance to just think, "Fuck photography, it's so gross," I learned about studio photography as a response to that and as an acknowledgement of the power of photography and film and all of that. It wasn't documentation or documentary in the literal or the traditional sense, but it so is that. It so is documentary. It so is honesty, because it's acknowledging that mythology and myth making is part of everyday practice and it's part of everyday culture, and it is what makes and allows culture to evolve and become liquid over time, and it's not stagnant. I find that really, really powerful. I think acknowledgement is powerful, essentially. Yeah.
Salote Tawale: In not to trying be general, but there is a huge history of photography and studio photography and African history. I think about some of my favourites, like Seydou Keïta and Samuel Fosso, of course, just because he documented himself, and when I found his work, I was like, "You're amazing." When you started, did you already know about those artists, or were you-
Atong Atem: That's why I started.
Salote Tawale: Yeah. Oh, I'm so excited by that.
Atong Atem: I studied painting initially at Sydney Uni, did that for two years at SCA, and then moved to Melbourne, moved here to finish uni, never got round to finishing because life, but also because I was so jaded by the time because at that point, I had done not very much art history, thought that I would be able to completely escape it because I was just so not into it, but then of course I transferred over all my units and they were like, "Look, you've done so much studio stuff. You can't graduate without art history. You've got to do these art history units." It was there that I sort of just lost my passion or my interest or my intrigue, because it was just so... not even, I don't know, the word for it is actually really simple. I feel like it was just not truthful. It was just not honest. It was just not realistic.
Peta Clancy: Sort of just Western-
Atong Atem: Absolutely. I mean, I reference those things in the work that I do now. Like Banksia very, very, very much references neoclassical painting and the French classical, whatever, all that jazz that I definitely studied, and that's relevant. I speak English. That's not my language. I'm using that as a tool, and I'd love to use this language to present my ideas or my world view or whatever in the same way that I reference Eurocentric art histories, because there's things that I find visually beautiful and interesting and aesthetically and thoughtfully, and it's great. It's all amazing. It's just not the full picture. It was such a shame for me when I was this young little kid that's like, "I want to learn. This is something I'm interested in. Teach me the ways of the world as an artist."
All I was presented with was a slice of a pie that I was allergic to, you know? So, it felt really necessary for me to do my own research. Yeah, I came across those artists, and I was really just heartbroken. I was in uni for a total of 10 years, and in all of those years that I was in uni, at no point were any of these art histories presented to me. It's not that they haven't been studied, it's not that people haven't done PhDs, it's just for whatever reason they weren't seen as relevant, maybe because there weren't that many African students. I don't know, whatever reason they just weren't seen as relevant. I mean, I've got ideas.
When I learned about studio photographers specifically predominantly in West Africa, it just was like, "Okay, this is what I want to do. This is the art that I want to make. This is the history that I, whether I want to or not, am part of as an artist. If I'm a contemporary artist making work in this world, then I'm part of that preexisting history of African art and image making." That's when I picked up a camera for the first time and I was like, "I'm making culture. I'm making work," and grateful that I liked it, otherwise I probably would've gone back to architecture and made some really shoddy buildings. But, yeah, it is so that thing of you don't... I don't know, it's just really important to know history, I guess. Yeah.
Salote Tawale: But that's permission. Sorry, Peta.
Peta Clancy: Oh, I was just going to say, no, it's just sparking so many thoughts. It's to know history, but it's about which history, and you had to find it.
Atong Atem: Absolutely. Yeah. But it's interesting, though, the finding of it. At the time, I'd use the language of, "I discovered this, I discovered that." I think the other thing is it's so important to remember or to acknowledge, for me, anyway, and this isn't universal by any stretch, but for me, it's really important to really, really acknowledge that it existed before me and I'm part of it, but there's nothing really very new about what I'm saying and doing and thinking as an artist, and I don't necessarily seek to make anything new. But it is that kind of acknowledgement, I suppose, of something that I'm already a part of just by being born into the world and wanting to make art. But, yeah, unfortunately that's not presented and it's not seen as an option, and we have to do our own work.
Peta Clancy: I'm sorry.
Atong Atem: Look, I'll take that, but also I'm really glad that I did that research, otherwise I would've been making honestly not great paintings.
Salote Tawale: It is true. In finding your own practice, you do need to find your own way. You kind of need the hardship of finding the things that you connect to your own histories, your own way of making, your own processes in the way that you think, but also in the way that you make. I mean, that's sort of why we do it.
Atong Atem: Yeah. I'm curious about what those have been for you, maybe for both of you, just those things that you had to go find it for yourself that have influenced or impacted your making now.
Salote Tawale: Do you want to go first, Peta? Because I've done a lot of talking.
Peta Clancy: I was just thinking of an example, which isn't related to... well, it is related to what I'm making now, but it's not a visual reference. But when I was in year 12, I was studying Australian history, and for some reason I came across Margaret Tucker's autobiography. She was a member of the stolen generation, and she was from Cummeragunja, where my family are from. I read the story, and it just was really bizarre, because my teacher at the time didn't provide any context. There was just absolutely no context. The only thing that I could do was to retell the story. The only history that we were ever told about was the wars and the World War I, the World War II, and Gallipoli. It's just completely startling.
Salote Tawale: There was there was no frontier wars discussion back then in the same way that it is now. It didn't have a name.
Peta Clancy: Exactly. My grandmother was ashamed of being Aboriginal, and that was a part of survival. See, I quite often think about that, that there was just absolutely no context. I get really angry, because, yes, I guess it's over time that I've realised that I don't know what she... she'd done a PhD, this teacher of mine, this history teacher, but I can't even remember her name. I don't know what in. But what was presented was just so heroic and male and white. But I think, Atong, what you were saying before about discovering the West African studio portraits, I think there's something really unique about the context in Australia that we're working in. It's those ships that came in, but it's also, you were talking about immigration laws, but Australia is profoundly horrendous when it comes to immigration. They're some of the toughest laws in the world.
Atong Atem: Yeah. It's true. It's so bizarre, because I keep remembering every time that the conversation comes up, there's an election around the corner, so the conversation always comes up. My family and I came here under John Howard's prime ministership, and it's just wacky to me that he was in some ways a little bit more liberal or whatever, or liberal in the American sense of the word, than where we are now almost 30 years later. Yeah. It's just extremely intense thinking about just the luck, honestly, of timing or whatever that allowed that to happen for my family.
Who knows what would have happened if it was 10 years earlier or later? You know? So, yeah, it is, you're right, it's pretty horrendous in terms of immigration laws here. My family story is one of the better, much more privileged, much more... yeah, it was a lot easier for us compared to a lot of other people who have migrated or attempted to migrate here. Even then, it was 12 years before we could see our dad, or so many very, very challenging things. There is a lot of... this is a place in the world, isn't it?
Salote Tawale: I mean, interesting that we can never really think... well, I guess one thing the last, maybe, I don't know, 2 to 10 years, or maybe even 50 years have taught us that it's a mistake to think it can't get worse or something. Those attitudes and immigration does come up as a political tool all the time.
Peta Clancy: Which is horrendous.
Salote Tawale: Even with the floods in Lismore, there were these Fijian meat factory workers who couldn't work because of the floods, and they lifted these people out of an old people's home and saved them. Then all of a sudden, there's this whole discussion about, "These are the kind of people we want to citizens." I was like, "This is horrible." That call happens because of that.
Peta Clancy: For being human.
Salote Tawale: Yeah, just being human, and, "Okay, well, those people are okay now. They were lifting those dogs and people to safety." Which is amazing and heroic, don't get me wrong. It's just not all right, isn't it, for that to be why it's on the table. You know?
Peta Clancy: I'm really intrigued, Salote, what artwork did you find?
Salote Tawale: Yeah. Oh, gosh. I'm going to just squash time and just say quickly, first time I ever went into I think the National Gallery of Victoria, oh, no, even a gallery, I was intrigued, but felt really out of place. I think I'd felt out of place in Australia anyway, so I just really worked hard at being there and wanted to be an artist. Then I thought that meant being a painter also. This is me as a kid. Then my photography teacher was really awesome in high school. He was amazing, Mr. Nadolni Then I saw the works of Tracey Moffatt, and I was like, "Oh, an artwork can be anything." Then I saw the artworks of the feminist video artists, and I'm like, "How can that be art?" Just questioned it, kept watching it, and then started to use to my own body and ideas. I started to formulate ideas more strongly, and positionality, even though I didn't use that term, became a really big part of the way I thought about making work.
There's various artists along the way, but I'd say most recently, probably Lubaina Himid from the UK, who made these painted cutouts and was a Turner prize winner. Actually, when she won the Turner prize, people were fraught, because she won on a work that she'd made in the eighties, which was an amazing work that I had seen. She was an older artist, Afro-Caribbean heritage, and people were outraged because it was an old work and that it shouldn't win the Turner prize just because it's trying to remake history or rechange history or whatever. It's like, "No, but it was also legitimately a really awesome work." It's a great work. I can even see what I do today is affected by listening to her talk about her work and looking at her artworks, and then also maybe that Aileen Moreton Robinson article, "Bodies That Matter on the Beach", I always try to get my students to read it. I think it's important. Anyhow, in a nutshell, some of the things.
Atong Atem: We might have to wrap up.
Peta Clancy: Yeah. What a fascinating, fascinating conversation. I would really like to extend my sincere thanks for the amazing conversation and sharing your artwork, Atong and Salote, and thank all the audiences for being here with us. It's been a really amazing conversation. Great to speak with you.
Semester 1: On Connection
Form x Content is a program of online and on-campus talks delivered during Monash’s teaching semesters. Thematically driven, the series features the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics, and aims to stimulate new thinking and encourage debate and discussion around contemporary ideas. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, both online and broadcast on the Big Screen at Monash Caulfield.
In 2022, Monash Form x Content considers ways in which individuals and organisations are changing and adapting in response to the disconnection and alienation experienced as a part of the pandemic.
The Semester 1 theme, ‘On Connection’ considers the importance of relationships and the ways in which these sustain us, with several talks presented in partnership with PHOTO2022 and Melbourne Design Week.
In Semester 2, the program theme, ‘On Care’ explores how the disciplines of art, design and architecture can engender and embed principles of caring, inclusivity, safety and wellbeing through research and practice.
Form x Content is free and accessible to all.
Join us Wednesday lunchtimes at 1pm—online and on the Big Screen, Caulfield campus.