and the Third Culture Kids
Interview by Charlotte Kench
Photos by Atong Atem
As far as I’m concerned, it’s Atong’s world and we’re all just living in it. This powerhouse is the creative force behind the striking and internationally celebrated photographic portraits that grace these pages. As a South Sudanese artist in Australia, where even the most insidious strands of structural racism still linger throughout our institutions and extend to our recent history, Atong approaches her art and photography as a means of reclamation, representation and carving out a space for herself in a world that does not necessarily cater for her.
To revise the opening statement: what follows here is (the tip of the iceberg of) Atong’s world and we’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it for you.
First of all, do you ever stop? Or sleep? How is it that you are constantly creating incredible images for the mere mortals whom worship at the altar of atongatem.com?
I only realised that I’ve been super busy just recently when I had to start saying no to things that were clashing. I’ve never been very good at saying no (even when I want to) so it’s been pretty wild to be forced to. I work a lot from home or my studio so I’m grateful that I can be relatively comfortable and pick my hours but it also means that I’m almost always working, whether it’s responding to emails, organising a meeting, editing content for others, putting together a talk; there’s always *something* to do. I’m not the most organised person though, so perhaps if I used a daily planner I’d be able to plan some “do nothing” days!
Where has your work taken you this year?
I’ve had a really great year with my work this year and last year. I’ve exhibited in New York at Redhook Labs and with them in Amsterdam for Unseen Amsterdam as well. I went to New Caledonia with my Mama too as an award from the Sydney Alliance de Francaise. I’m also really grateful to have been part of a group show, Ua numi le fau by my good friend Leuli Eshraghi at Gertrude Contemporary because it’s really exciting for me to work with curators who are working to reform the racism, sexism and colonial mentality inherent in a lot of the art world. I’ve done a lot in the last couple of years and have a lot more coming up but my relationships with Leuli and Redhook Labs has really opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
So, you’re what they call an “emerging” artist. What does that feel like?
I’ve been casually making art and chilling for most of my life so it feels nice to have people and organisations I deeply respect peeping me. I guess it doesn’t feel like much to be an emerging artist because that’s what I’ve been for at least six years. That being said, it’s definitely a constant state of “THIS IS EXCITING” and “THIS IS TERRIFYING” simultaneously. Most of the excitement comes from the vastness of potential and the fear comes from the expectations. Being expected to have some kind of tangible upward trajectory that makes people watching me feel comfortable. I haven’t made new work in so long because I’m always so busy, but there’s an expectation that emerging artists should be eager to please and constantly doing and making and getting better, more profound and moving forward while I honestly want to look back at things I’ve done and meditate on them. The pressure to be new and innovative is maybe the most terrifying part of making art in the public sphere. I don’t want my fear of it to dictate what I make but I also don’t want to necessarily do things any particular way.
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