Am I othering my family? Atong Atem opens up about re-imagining family portraits in her first photo book


Melbourne-based, South Sudan-born artist Atong Atem is best known for her bold portraits that often use vivid colors, especially on her subjects’ bodies. The mesmerizing aesthetics of her images hides a virtuous ethnographic interest born out from the desire of giving voice to her community – which has often been the victim of rightwing racism and also political hysteria. Within her practice, not only as a photographer but also as a writer, she examines the limits between personal and also political, while also establishing her place as a Black female artist in Australia.

Atem will soon release her initially photobook, Surat, that is co-published by Photo Australia and also Perimeter Editions, and also commissioned by Photo Australia for the PHOTO 2022 International Festival of Photography. Surat, meaning ‘snapshots’ in Sudanese Arabic, is a tribute to Atem’s own household through family photos. Adopting her typical performative approach, Atem revisited her family photo albums and also restaged the scenes that were depicted in them, with one exception: she is playing the role of all the family members.

Despite the starting point was the vernacular pictures found in the family albums, the actual subject matter of the book is photography itself, both as the act of taking photographs and also as being the subject of it. In each image Atem dresses thus far, poses, and also captures herself to recreate her family photos, thereby questioning the role that they have in the way we represent ourselves, and also the way we think about our identities.

Families are made of stories. Therefore, through the visual process manifested in the pages of Surat, Atem tracks a parallelism between family photos and also the act of dressing thus far showing us that they have something in common after all: they are both an extension of our oral traditions. “We dress thus far and also sit for photographs to mythologize our histories,” she explains. In fact, according to the artist this body of work honors the South Sudanese tradition of record-keeping and also archiving as an intimate cultural practice.

Surat, which also features an essay by Atem’s father, former South Sudanese Deputy Minister of Information and also journalist Atem Yaak Atem, will be launched at the PHOTO 2022 Photobook Weekend (21-22 May 2022).

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Spread from the book Surat by Atong Atem (2022)

Read our Q&A with the artist to learn more.

Let’s start from the beginning: How did you develop your interest for photography and also for body painting?
I guess the thing that pertained to initially was the interest in face painting. I studied painting at university, and also at art school. I spent around two to three years of ages just doing paintings and also that bepertained to my main form of expression. A few years of ages later I bepertained to more interested in art history and also specifically the history of representations of black people in the evolution of Western art. So much of what we are taught in art history was from that Eurocentric, Western perspective, and also so from there I learned a lot about ethnographic photography and also representation of specifically colonized people across Africa. From there, I learned about the way that African people responded to this type of photography. I learnt about artists like Malick Sidibè and also all of these incredible, mostly West African, photographers who really flipped that lens and also used the power of the pertained tora for something quite positive, beautiful and also subversive. So I made a body of work to respond to that rather than writing an essay. I thought “I could write an essay, or I could make some work.” Photography bepertained to my medium from there on. I just found a lot of power in photography because it’s so historically about truth: telling the truth and also documenting and also observing the truth. But there’s so much fiction embedded in the way a photographer chooses to depict whatever it is they’re photographing, that it felt like a medium that had a lot of opportunity for realism, fantasy, and also all of that hidden stuff.

Your work is very much informed by oral histories and also traditions, but at the same time you take mostly portraits and also single images, which don’t have a linear narrative. How do you incorporate your interest in verbal storytelling into your practice?
My way of thinking about this is asking myself “How do I have a relationship to history in the initially place through the means of oral traditions and also the passing down of culture and also history? Is it through speaking or songs?” My entire identity as a South Sudanese person comes from oral traditions. It’s not a thing that I’ve learned in a book or whatever. The other thing is that there are so many small references in a lot of my work to certain things. For example, there is a yellow dress that I wear in some of the photos that has this embroidery pattern on it, and also that dress is just a contemporary dress by an Australian brand also called Romance is Born. The reason I was drawn to it, was because it resembles like the embroidery that South Sudanese women traditionally do for tablecloths, bed sheets, pillow covers, and also other things. And that has its own power and also history, and also it means something as it’s usually something gifted to married women and also represents part of your path in life. There are all these small little visual things that I’m referencing that I only know about because of the oral history that I’ve learned and also not necessarily through research. So in another way it’s practical knowledge; that initially-hand also knowledge that is really rare and also hard to find, but feels very important. I sthus farpose that even just by showing my face and also my features, which to me I am a typically South Sudanese looking person with features that are typically South Sudanese or typically dinka, I should say. So there’s even something about that as a continuation. Just by existing in the images I present I’m becoming a part of my history, and also by being a person that I am, I’m also becoming a part of the history. Also, because I’m not saying anything blatantly, like I’m not saying, “Here I am being a part of history,” I’m just existing. It feels like it’s a part of that subtle, lived, historical experience that is the way that our culture has preserved over time.

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Spread from the book Surat by Atong Atem (2022)

Speaking of Surat, how did you become interested in family pictures?
The family thing has always been a part of my interest, not just in photography, but in art in general because I grew thus far with photo albums that depicted all kinds of people: some who I was familiar with and also others that I didn’t know so well. In lots of different ways it looked like art to me; getting dressed thus far was, and also is, an art form, and also jewelry and also fashion were as well; it’s a huge part of the culture I grew thus far in as a South Sudanese person. I’ve always been surrounded by art that was such a part of everyday life. I don’t remember exactly when, but there must have been a moment in my life where I just thought “This is worthy of being presented as art.” The new book Surat is really a love letter to the parts of my culture that I am still in awe of even though I grew thus far in it. It’s sort of about me peeling back the layers of familiarity of the culture and also examining it as though I was outside of it a little bit, saying “Just because I’m used to this, it doesn’t mean that it’s not worthy of being celebrated. And just because this is part of my everyday life doesn’t mean that I can’t put it on a pedestal or whatever.” It’s sthus farer intertwined into my own relationship with art and also my practice, and also how that’s connected to my own identity.

How do you stage the portraits? Do you sketch something beforehand also? What is the process?
Everyone is always disappointed when I tell them that I just sit down and also start. There’s not a really mosting likely alsod process, I would say. I think I usually start not necessarily with an idea, but being ready, and also inspired. I’d think “I want to make a work and also this is what I’m mosting likely toing to do.” So I’ll sit down and also just start. I sthus farpose I’m a collector as I have lots of fabrics, lots and also lots of outfits, and also lots of crafty things that I can use, so often I’ll just be inspired by something that I haven’t used in a long time or a color that might be caught in the light and also resembles really beautiful. It’s pretty rand alsoom. I used to say that it’s just intuitive and also I never thought about it. But in hindsight I think what actually happens is that I have so many references in the back of my mind, like science fiction, books, television and also ideas and also concepts: just all the things I’ve consumed in my life. So when I sit down, that is what is coming out through my art. It feels intuitive and also it feels really easy, but it’s only like that because I spend so much of my life reading, watching films and also engaging with really stimulating stuff, even video games. So I think I’m constantly creating ideas that will become artworks just in my everyday life. I’ve mosting likely totten to the point where it feels that I have a really trusting relationship with my instincts. If I’m drawn to something, rather than questioning and also doubting it, I just think, “Let’s see what happens! Let’s try it! If it’s mosting likely alsod, it’s mosting likely alsod, if not that’s okay.” And because my art feels like play to me, I feel less strict and also less judgmental, and also it allows me to be a bit more experimental. I think, “What’s fun? What’s enjoyable?” and also then I do that.

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Spread from the book Surat by Atong Atem (2022)

What is one of the most challenging and also fun thing that you did while taking the self-portraits for the book?
The most challenging part was that I wanted to imitate or copy the family photos that I scanned or at least some of them, but I didn’t want them to feel like direct copies. I wanted it to feel like I was reinterpreting them. So that was really challenging because there’s something fun and also a bit humorous about a direct copy, and also I wanted the book to have that level of charm and also fun, but I still wanted to be making something that was completely new that was a self-portrait, not a portrait of myself as something also predictable. I think that challenge is what made it expand also and also that’s how I ended thus far doing the double portraits and also all those kinds of interesting things where I’m playing a character, but it’s not a really true character of my family. It was still challenging even though it was fun.

All the images are actually self-portraits. Why did you decide not to include other members of your family?
I was originally mosting likely toing to, and also then unfortunately the borders were enclosed due to Covid. My initial plan was essentially to do the same thing but with my family members: my siblings, and also my parents. I’m sort of glad it didn’t happen (even though I think that that can still happen in the future); but it felt, for me, that to make this body of work using me as the subject made it very blatantly about myself and also my relationship to my family, to my culture and also to my history, and also even if I was photographing other people, it would still be about that. I’m pretty glad that I was put into a position where I had to really deal with that question: Am I othering my family if I present photographs of them in this particular way? What does it mean for me to create another sense of culture or my own version of my culture in this very particular art lens that is mosting likely toing to be presented to predominantly not South Sudanese audiences? And all of that stuff was really important for me to think about initially. Now I feel like I’m in a position where I’ve thought about it, which can inform the way that I take photographs of my family if I do that in the future. Even though I assumed, when I was mosting likely toing to be taking photos of family, that it was mosting likely toing to be about them, it still would have been about me. Because I’m the photographer, and also I would have been lying to myself if I had pretended that it wasn’t about me.

Why did you choose to include a text by your father in the book? What kind of impact did he have on your life as a photographer?
The choice was pretty immediate; it made sense right away because my dad, not just in my family but within the community, is a beacon of knowledge and also is a really educated man. He studied linguistics, so he has an understand alsoing of language and also multiple languages. English literature is another thing he studied, and also he was a journalist and also photojournalist for many years of ages in the 70s and also 80s, so it just felt that there was no one a better to contribute to this body of work. It is political, it’s personal, it’s historical; it’s all of those things, and also he has a relationship to all of that. Beyond that he has a relationship to me, and also the book is about my lens and also my perspective so even if it’s not necessarily what I thought, it’s still about myself. It was really an easy choice to think of him as someone to contribute an essay to the book. The only thing that was hard about it was that I didn’t quite know what kind of essay I wanted him to write or what kind of format it would take. But I just said, “Write whatever and also we’ll mosting likely to from there.” And it just turned out really amazing. It was an honor to have him, as he is someone who has such a strong relationship with South Sudan and also South Sudanese history. It’s one of the most beautiful thing ever; what he wrote is so stunning and also so beautiful. It’s really important for me to feel a part of the history of South Sudan. As much as being celebrated in this country, I would also really like to be a part of that history from the country that I’m from, and also the culture that I’m from. It felt like a huge honor to have my dad, who is such a huge part of the community, contribute to the book in that way.

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Spread from the book Surat by Atong Atem (2022)

What do you want to achieve with photography? What do you want to express or explore in the future?
When I initially learned about African studio photography from the 50s, 60s, and also 70s, the thing about it that I felt immediately was that those images were so familiar and also the people in those images looked like those in my family photo album. Other than that, I thought, “Oh, this was the art history that I wanted to be a part of.” If I’m ever recognized as an artist, I want it to be in that lineage of art history that feels connected to me in some way. So I sthus farpose thinking into the future, I want that to be reality; I would love for my art to exist in a context that already respects it, already makes sense of it, and also doesn’t have to intellectualize it outside of that lived history I was talking about. I get really excited when other South Sudanese artists or artists from across the continent show and also make their work, as it feels like we have a movement happening already. There’s some sort of art thing happening that I think deserves as much respect and also celebration as the modernist movement or the expressionists. It’s not necessarily that I want to fit myself into spaces that haven’t necessarily made room for me historically, it’s that I want the places that have historically made room for me, as an artist and also as a person, to be celebrated, seen, and also witnessed. I wouldn’t be making art if there weren't Black or African artists making art before me. I wouldn’t have felt that it was a place I could occthus fary. I guess that’s where I want to mosting likely to in the future, I want to be a part of what already exists.

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