Monash University Toggle Search
Atem, Atong - 2017.24.1

Atong Atem

Adut 2015
digital print 
56.7 x 83.7 x 3.7 cm (frame)
Purchased 2017

Atong Atem is a South Sudanese artist living in Australia. Her work explores postcolonialism, the African diaspora and the politics of race and gender, while also interrogating ways of looking. The Studio Series is Atem’s first foray into photographic practice. The series of portraits against the makeshift backdrop mimic a traditional photography studio. The works pay tribute to early postcolonial photography that emerged in West Africa in the 1960s – most notably that of Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta and Philip Kwame Apagya – and feature colourful backgrounds that give the appearance of movement and liveliness.

Like Sidibé, Atem focuses her lens on young people – in this case, young Africans like herself in Australia, who are growing up away from their parents’ homeland. Her subjects’ connection to the places their parents left is inherent, invoked in these portraits through the rich prints that drape the backdrops. In Paanda, Morayo and Adut, the sitters are adorned in African print garments, beading and hairstyles, with kitsch Australiana ornaments symbolising where the photographs were made. The idealised portrayal of these young people counters any perceived or presumed sense of their socio-economic status; these portraits force the viewer to look beyond the limits of the gaze typical of representations of black Africans in European spaces. This series challenges and shifts the European narrative of photography, particularly depictions of black Africans in ethnographic imagery, which usually evoke a sense of poverty and/or pity. Atem invites us to see in these portraits a beauty and majesty beyond such stereotypes.

The Studio Series gives us an insight into the impact of migration and displacement on African diaspora communities. It illustrates their desire to hold onto an identity that they no longer have immediate and physical connection to. By turning the lens onto young people like herself, Atem invites the subjects to project themselves in the way they want to be portrayed. While portraiture is interpreted by physiognomy – inferring meaning from faces – what is striking about these four portraits is the visible breadth of emotion, from the seemingly sombre in Paanda to a faint smile in Adut. Each is up for interpretation, yet what Atem manages to capture across the faces of her subjects is power – the power of the histories they represent in their faces, their gazes and their clothes, and the strength of culture, which continues even after displacement.

The dynamic power is also represented through the place in which these photographs were made; the portraits cannot be read independently of considering the impact colonialism has had in Australia. The same colonial impulse that led to dispossession and displacement in South Sudan is evident in the past of this country, where a South Sudanese artist lives and made these works. This speaks to the interconnectedness of painful histories and how they are recorded and documented, something Atem expertly captures. Like Sidibé, Keïta and Apagya before her, she portrays her subjects with a sense of joy.

Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist, filmmaker and author.

From the series
Atem, Atong - 2017.24.2
Atong Atem

Ajok 2015
digital print
56.7 x 83.7 x 3.7 cm (frame)
Purchased 2017

Atem, Atong - 2017.24.3
Atong Atem

Morayo 2015
digital print
83.7 x 56.7  x 3.7 cm (frame)
Purchased 2017

Atem, Atong - 2017.24.4
Atong Atem

Paanda 2015
digital print
83.7 x 56.7  x 3.7 cm (frame)
Purchased 2017