14th – 20th December


Ritual and Birth: Atong Atem 


Atong Atem is an internationally acclaimed South Sudanese artist based in Melbourne (Naarm), who has conquered the world with her vibrant and intimate photography exploring the contemporary African diaspora. From the Tate Modern to the National Gallery of Victoria, Atem has captured the eye of curators, critics and collectors alike as an artist who creates beautifully crafted images that explore family, migration and her South Sudanese heritage.  


Born in Ethiopia, Atem and her family sought refuge in Australia and moved to the Central Coast of New South Wales when she was six years old. As an adult she moved to Sydney to study painting at Sydney University, then later at RMIT University in Melbourne. Atem rapidly moved from the brush to the camera and began sharing her self-portraits. “I’m interested in the moment in history when black people took the camera and chose to photograph ourselves for ourselves,” she told Artist Profile magazine.   


Atem began to interweave her African heritage in the form of textiles, props and makeup and to photograph herself and her family and friends. Referencing fashion and editorial techniques, Atem enhanced and exaggerated her features, making herself appear alien-like, a reflection of the way she navigates the world. “Still, to this day, someone with dark skin, someone like me, is seen as an outsider and uncommon and it can be quite alien and threatening to lots of people” (To Be, Atong Atem  A Familiar Face on a New Horizon, Sophie Prince).  


Atem’s images reference 20th Century African photographers exploring portraiture such as Malick Sidibe, Philip Kwame Apagya and SeydouKeita.  Atem notes that photography was used by White Settlers in Africa as a tool of colonialism, by marginalising and ‘categorising’ African people as inferior subjects. “Part of this was capturing the colonised through an anthropological lens,” she told Vogue’s Jonah Waterhouse. Atem’s photographs reference the photographers who came before her, most notably in her ‘Studio’series, which is currently exhibiting in A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography at the Tate Modern in London.  


In 2016 Atem won the Brisbane Powerhouse Melt Portrait Prize, followed by the prestigious NGV + MECCA Cosmetica M-Power Grant in 2017. Shortly after Atem received the Lightwork New York Artist Residency in 2018 and the inaugural Art Gallery of New South Wales La Prairie Award in 2022. In 2023, she has garnered major commissions by the National Gallery of Victoria for Melbourne Now, The National Portrait Gallery at Portrait23 and Photo Ireland, with her series DUST.  


DUST is a reflection on beliefs and rituals of Dinka culture. “The series draws inspiration from Dinka women, who act as mediums and custodians to the earth, and explores their relationship to the rupturing history of Christianity and colonialism,” explains Photo Ireland curator Catherine McKinley. Atem’s own experience of motherhood informs the series, exploring intersections between birth and death. Atem states, “there is something intense about performing and referencing end of life rituals with a full-term baby in your body…” Figures shrouded in cloth draw connections to Christian mythologies and the traditional iconography of western art, especially the Virgin Mary. The bright orange sand also prompts memories of migration, conjuring images of South Sudanese dirt roads, to the red earth of the Australian landscape.   


Atong Atem’s photographs are seen at major institutions around Australia. Her evocative photographs have, and continue to be, an expression of the political power of self-portraiture as a South-Sudanese woman living on colonial land.   


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