How Photographer Atong Atem Draws on her African Heritage

Atong Atem

This Sudanese-Australian artist draws as much inspiration from African photographers as she does from Western fashion and beauty imagery.

“I studied art history and was so aware of how my family’s history was excluded,” says Atong Atem. “I was only ever presented with Western art, which is beautiful, but I felt there was so much more to art than what these people from Europe were making.”

Born in Ethiopia and raised in South Sudan before arriving in Australia at the age of six, the Melbourne-based artist’s blurring of identity, fashion, joy and culture in her photography has caught the attention of some of Australia’s biggest players, including the Art Gallery of NSW and La Prairie, which awarded her this year’s prestigious La Prairie Art Award for her self-portrait, A yellow dress, a bouquet.

A yellow dress, a bouquet (2022) by Atong Atem, winner of the inaugural La Prairie Art Award

“Photography felt like a good place to start. I wanted to look at [early] African photographers. But, of course, the images that came up were deeply colonial, ethnographic, dehumanising photographs. That started everything for me.” When Atem finally found artists such as Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, who used the camera as a tool of subversion and documentation, it changed her. “To see how these artists depicted people in their own communities in an authentic way that wasn’t imposing colonial ideals, it blew my mind. And I’ve been making work like that ever since.”

Though her recent photographs parody 1980s and ’90s Western fashion shoots and she describes her art as “science fiction and history combined”, Atem says her work is produced through the lens of identity and intimacy – and fun. “I’m lucky I have such a connection with the work I make that it can just be about finding the joy in creating. And that’s what I seek – joy. I want my work to sit in my world, which is informed by politics and history but isn’t just about politics and history.”

Exhibited at:

Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Mars Gallery, Melbourne; Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne; Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Red Hook Labs, New York; Unseen Amsterdam.

Breakthrough moment:

“A group show at Gertrude Contemporary in 2016, curated by Léuli Eshrāghi. Prior to that, I didn’t believe in myself. It was the first time I showed my work publicly. From there, so much happened. And it was all because this one person believed in me.”

What the critics say:

“Atem’s joyous, subversive self-portraits employ riotous cosmetic and costume devices to deliver a visually pleasurable and intellectually uncomfortable punch.” Kelly Burke, The Guardian.

Photography by Kristoffer Paulsen

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