ATONG ATEM: Afro-Futurism and the Ongoing Self Portrait
Atong Atem is a South Sudanese artist and writer living in Narrm, Melbourne. Through her work Atong explores migrant narratives, postcolonial practices in the diaspora, and identity through portraiture.
THE PIN. Tell us a bit about yourself - your childhood, life in Melbourne etc.
ATONG ATEM. I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where my South Sudanese family was living from the late 80s. We eventually moved to Kenya not long after I was born, due to political unrest and lived there till the mid 90s, when we moved to Australia under a refugee visa.
I grew up on the central coast [NSW] and for a very long time my family was the only non-white family I knew of. For the most part, I had an okay time living there. I definitely experienced a lot of micro-aggressions and had a really difficult time when I started to realise just how different I was to the majority of the people, and what that meant socially, but it never bothered be much because I always had a plan of escape in mind.
Before I lived in Melbourne, I lived in Sydney where I was trying to do art school. I moved to Melbourne, to finish art school, in 2014 [I think] and found a really refreshing community of QPOCS [*Queer People of Colour] and black women who shared very similar experiences to me.
A big part of the reason I’m still here is because of that community and the people that have challenged me and my beliefs for the better.
What does the term third culture kid mean to you?
A. To me, a Third Culture Kid [TCK] is someone who’s straddling the space between familiarity and unfamiliarity - between belonging and isolation, collective identity and *crisis*. I think it resonates with a lot of people because it describes such broad but tangible experiences that refugees, migrants, Indigenous peoples in colonised places, and cultural minorities can relate to.
Although the term was initially coined to describe a fairly broad set of circumstances, I think that people from racial and ethnic minorities specifically resonate with it because a lot of TCK's of colour were forced into those circumstances due to political and social circumstances that have roots in colonialism.
To me, it’s a simple and accessible way to discuss really complicated and emotional experiences.
Who and what inspires you?
A. I’m obviously very inspired by post-colonialism art in Africa, specifically studio photography and the works of Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita and so on. I’m also super inspired by sci-fi, specifically dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and pulp sci-fi of the 60s and 50s [especially the cover art!]. I’m really into Afro-Futurism as a framework for black self love and imagining black futures - Sun Ra, George Clinton, Octavia Butler, to name a few.
I love deep fantasy and un-real world building, it’s a big, but visually subtle, part of my work.
Is there a particular message or statement you are trying to make with the work that you produce?
A. My work is inherently about me and my attempt to love myself publicly. It’s for black people and our uplifting of self and culture. There’s no one message but it’s a process of self exploration for the most part.
Do you think it's important we have diversity in media and art in Australia?
A. It’s super important that we have diversity in Australia! Especially in terms of Indigenous representation. There are some amazing examples, like Redfern Now and Cleverman, which dispel the myth that diverse casts 'don’t work' for whatever racist reason.
I think it’s imperative that Australian media follows the diversity of actors and media personalities with a diversity in producers, writers and directors. It isn’t enough to have diverse characters when the people deciding how these characters are portrayed are nothing like them and have no real vested interest in their portrayal.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you're in, what would it be?
ATONG ATEM. Be patient with yourself!!!
*This interview has been edited
Photo credit: Atong Atem