Atong Atem is a Melbourne-based writer, photographer and artist from South Sudan, whose work explores notions of blackness, and the cultural identities of first and second-generation African immigrants in Australia. Her work has been featured in gal-dem, Salt magazine, Dazed Digital, I-D and as part of The Lifted Brow’s Umami series. We’ve asked Atong all about her creative process, what inspires her and what ideas she’d like to explore in the work we’ll be featuring in Vol. 7.
Hi Atong! Thanks for chatting with us at The Suburban Review, we’re really looking forward to getting to know your work and your practice a bit better ☺
Where are you based and where do you work?
I’m based in Collingwood at the moment living in a little house with two friends and two cats. Most of the time I work at home, usually in bed at 3am or after hours at RMIT if I’m feeling jazzy.
How do you get started? What kind of headspace do you need to be in in order to write/make art?
I used to only ever write when I was feeling some type of way, usually distraught or entirely disconnected, but that only works when my life’s falling apart and not so much when my life’s going OK.
Recently my life has been going OK, so I’ve been practicing note taking as often as I think of something worth writing down and sussing out those notes at the end of the day.
Do you have a daily routine?
I don’t really have a concrete daily routine, but I really like to take time at the end of the day to think about what I’ve done and am yet to do—usually deadlines and emails.
I take a lot of notes on my phone and in journals and I like to check them pretty regularly. The downside to that is that I’ve been consistently journaling since I was in primary school so I usually end up re-reading my old diaries and decade-old Word docs instead of creating new stuff.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I think my inspiration comes predominantly from myself, that is, my experiences and my desire to figure myself out—whatever that means.
I think I’m generally pretty introspective and self critical. I’ve always been a fairly non-social person because there’s just so much to discover in my own ideas of who I am and where I fit into the world. I’m still at the juvenile-self-discovery phase of life and not quite ready to inspect the people around me except in my relation to them.
A lot of things I believe about myself and the world are things I’ve believed for so many years and I’m beginning to, not so much re-evaluate, but I guess re-examine them, and try to contextualise those 10-year-old thoughts in relation to my 25-year-old self.
Everyone thinks they’re weird and disconnected to some extent and I think that’s a lot of my motivation and inspiration for writing—looking at that in myself and letting the idea that I’m an alien or a stranded deep sea creature kind of take hold.
What does it feel like when you are on a roll and things are flowing nicely?
It feels like late at night rolling into early in the morning and I’m probably listening to 90s RnB and the sun’s probably coming up and I’m feeling frantic and energised. I’m trying to do that a lot less, but I’m realising I don’t have a lot of practice with discipline and I’ve gotten away with sporadicness and a kind of selfish hermit nature for so long.
I’m still practising organisation and scheduling, and realising that being organised and getting enough sleep because of it is so much sexier than being a tortured artist.
BUT, when I’m on a roll it usually feels like a purge because I’m still learning.
Whose work have you been influenced by? Did a particular text or piece of art trigger a reaction that’s been formative for you?
When I was 10 years old I found a copy of Henry Miller’s Sexus at home and I read it for so, so many years. That was my first introduction to that kind of sprawling memoir style of writing that wasn’t so dependent on being flowery and pretty, but felt like my own (impossible) memories.
I have all kinds of thoughts about Henry Miller now, but as a 10-year-old, the only thought I had was, ‘I want to write like this.’
When I was in high school I was a science fiction geek, and even now nothing really makes me feel as happy as reading a really good dystopian novel and I would love to write my own one day.
So, mix dystopian science fiction and Henry Miller and you get me.
What is your mandate with your work? What do you try to portray?
I don’t try to do or say anything with my writing anymore. Having a background in visual art and kind of viewing my art and writing as elements of my larger body of work as an artist has really helped me be less critical and rigid with my writing.
My art is in a lot of ways about the world I live in and how I do or don’t fit into it, and my writing complements that by being about my inner world and how it does or doesn’t reflect on my position in the world. I think I’m just creating a series of honest literary portraits of myself.
Tell us about your project Third Culture Kids
The Studio Photography series was created here in Melbourne with a bunch of my close friends as an homage to studio photography across Africa. I was inspired by Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita and so many others who subverted the colonial gaze of European studio photography and ethnography in Africa.
More than anything, it’s about seeing ourselves as black Africans and representing ourselves the way we want with a sense of cultural pride that has been denied a lot of us.
For myself and my friends, who I photographed in the series, being first and second generation migrants means that our position in the world is always questioned, internally just as much as externally, and I felt it’d be really powerful and important to capture that moment when, through photography, we could truly own our image and be confident in our in-between space and identity.
You’re a writer, a photographer, an artist—how do you decide which medium to use to portray an idea?
All my work sort of sits in the same universe of thinking. It’s all about colonialism, identity, liminal spaces and myself on an intimate level. Even though I make works across a lot of media, everything I do is part of a consistent and singular body of work. It doesn’t really feel like I’m doing a bunch of different things because of that theoretical framework that binds everything I do.
In all honesty, I’m doing the same thing over and over again, trying different media to see if my analysis of myself and my place in the world will be more revelatory for me depending on what medium I use. I’m just realllllly self obsessed tbh.