Since its inception, photography has dominated the way we visually remember and describe the world around us and where we are within it. It has tapped into desire, joy, grief, and superstition, such as in the Victorian era, when some believed it could be a channel between people and spirits in the afterlife. In portraiture, photography immortalizes its subjects and has transformed artists’ ability to express themselves and tell stories. For Ethiopia-born, South Sudanese photographer Atong Atem, who is based in Melbourne, the medium enables a salient exploration of the African diaspora and migrant narratives by focusing on the relationship between figures and the interior spaces they inhabit.
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Sometimes referred to as Naarm, Melbourne comprises the traditional lands of the Kulin Nation, itself a collective of five Aboriginal tribes. Paralleling her exploration of the nature of place, culture, and postcolonial narratives, Atem’s series of powerful self-portraits focus on how perceptions of identity are shaped through relationships between place, dress, and custom and the way they change over time or merge when people move. Occasionally referencing art history, such as “Blue Face” modeled after Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (c. 1665), her works also nod to groundbreaking 20th century photographers Malick Sidibe, Philip Kwame Apagya, and Seydou Keita, who expanded traditions of studio portraiture. In a similar spirit, Atem explores intersections between place, people, and time to create a visual representation of the connection to culture.
This year, the artist’s first book of photographs, titled Surat (Sudanese Arabic for “snapshots”), was commissioned by Photo Australia. The second edition is due to be published by Perimeter next month, and you can find more of the artist’s work on her website and Instagram. (via ART RUBY)