Image: Atong Atem, self-portrait for our Catalogue Girls series.
Atong: 25/ woman(ist)/ Narrm Melbourne
Catalogue: Can you please explain to us everything that you’re all about?
Atong: I am an artist, writer and I sometimes work with youth oriented community organisations in a pretty broad capacity. Most of the work I do revolves around social change and the very many ways that can manifest. I’m surrounded by a lot of friends who work full time for youth organisations so I’ve been lucky to learn a lot from them and apply that to workshops, discussions, talks and whatever else I do with and for young people. My personal work is a long and continuous self portrait that looks at African visual languages, gazes, blackness, womaness, migration, displacement, beautification and self imposed isolation. I work mostly in portrait photography and sometimes write instead of going to therapy.
Catalogue: What is the main message behind your writing?
Atong: I don’t know that there’s a specific message behind my writing but there’s an undercurrent of de-colonisation, as I’ve come to understand it, black empowerment and my own journeys through trauma, forgiveness and anger. A lot of my writing is about my experiences as a dark skinned black African woman in Australia, a displaced settler on stolen land, a middle child in a family of seven, an art school dropout and a person trying to make art without the world’s interference. I don’t mean any of that to say it’s accessible and meant for everyone, but rather that my writing my story myself means that it’s inherently multi-faceted. Although I generally write non-fiction memoir-esque prose and articles, I see my writing as a part of my visual art and my extended body of work as a visual artist.
Catalogue: Who or what is currently inspiring you?
Atong: At the moment I’m listening to Leonard Cohen’s discography on repeat. I’ve always been deeply inspired by his music and writing. I’m also really, really excited about Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the MET museum and Solange’s new album A Seat at the Table. I’m inspired by so much more but today as I write this, that’s what’s on my mind.
Catalogue: what are your plans for 2017 with your art?
Atong: With only a month and a bit to go, I’m really excited about my studio space at Magic Johnston, courtesy of their Summer Hall Pass scholarship and I really want to use this space to plan ahead, make new work and hopefully relax a little more and be a bit creative again. This year has been so effed all round but I’m genuinely hopeful for 2017
Catalogue: You also take incredible photographs- how did you get into this?
Atong: I had only been in melbourne a year or so when I decided to try photography. I had met a group of incredible young black women through Still Nomads and knew I had to make an homage to them, their beauty and the work of African photographers before me like Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe and Philip Kwame Apagya. We just all had the same point of reference in terms of the visual languages that a lot Africans know how to speak; that is the language of patterns, props, opulence, colours, beauty. We went into an empty drawing studio after hours at uni, I borrowed a camera and we shot the Studio Portraits collaboratively and with KFC. Now I’m a photographer, I guess.
Catalogue: If you found $100, what would you do with it?
Atong: I would buy food for me and my cat and maybe some fake flowers.
Catalogue: What are you most excited about for summer 16/17?
Atong: I’m excited for warm weather, the dissipation of seasonal depression, having a studio so I can make works and spending time outside every now and then.