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Words by Kish Lal

Atong Atem was born in Ethiopia to South Sudanese parents, spending her early years in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp before moving to Australia. Atem’s art is a constantly evolving reflection of these formative years and their relation to her life now, navigating, confronting, and tackling her identity.

Her vivid photographs of her friends in brightly lit studio backgrounds are colourful and joyous. They fill rooms with an energy you’re likely not used to feeling at an exhibition and that is something that lingers with you even when you leave. Her output of work over the past few years has been primarily photography, and it’s also been relentless, with show after show she’s ready to take a break. For Atem, 2017 will see her picking up the paintbrush while working alongside her mum for an exhibition that serves to celebrate a woman who deeply inspires her.

I saw that you and your mum are working on an exhibition together. How did that happen?

I actually proposed that to her the other day and she was like, “Yeah, okay.” I’m hoping to do it by the end of the year. The whole idea is to present her embroidery work. She grew up making these amazing embroidered things, which to her aren’t necessarily art because she has a very specific idea of what is or what is not art. To her art is a painting so it’s going to be interesting to present something besides her that is challenging her own beliefs too. I just want to celebrate my mum as an artist and as an individual and explore some things with her, because sometimes your parents don’t see themselves as anything but parents. There’s that whole moment in time when kids don’t see their parents as humans or separate people and parents also begin to stop seeing themselves separate to their children.

You’ve recently been getting back into painting, does this mean you’ll put photography aside for a while?

Probably not, because [photography] is something I do quite often and would be doing anyway. When I first started making art I gravitated towards painting because it’s very tactile and there’s something very fun and exciting about building something from nothing. It’s like a different part of your brain is being used when you take photographs versus when you paint. I want to exercise that other part of my brain again because it’s something that’s very dear to me. A lot of people think I only do photography and think of me as a photographer but I use so many different mediums.

You have described all of your art, across various mediums, as forming an ongoing self-portrait. Has that been something you’ve been doing intentionally from the beginning?

I think that’s just incidental. It’s come along as I’m making stuff and I think part of it is because most of the work I do is portraiture and most of the portraiture I do outside of photography is self-portraiture. Everything I do gravitates towards the deeply personal. I see it as free therapy. Subconsciously what I’m focusing on and what I’m not even aware that I’m fixated on, is questioning myself and my relationship with time and places in history. I’m trying to spot myself in all of that, which is great and I love doing it and it gives me freedom to do anything. It really means I can do whatever the fuck I want.

You’ve spoken about how interconnected the community is and how doors only began to open for you once you were first interviewed. Do you have any advice for people having a hard time breaking through?

The only thing I have to say is what I didn’t do and it’s what I should have done, which is to contact people constantly and put yourself out there. I can’t remember where I heard this, but somebody was saying every week you should do 10 scary things, things that you’ll do with the knowledge that you’ll probably fail but do it anyway. Practice failing, getting rejected and get out of your comfort zone. I wish I had learnt that earlier. I feel like we just need to be a bit braver and pretend that we’re really cool until we actually are cool [laughs]. I think that works. That whole imposter syndrome thing is just a disservice to people. It’s not cute, it’s not fun, it’s not nice to pretend that you don’t deserve to be where you’re at because you’re young or new or emerging. I’m not sure if that is good advice? I’m still learning.

Follow Atong Atem:

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This feature originally appeared in the April issue of Limit’d.

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