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Feature by Interview: Mikaela Aitken; Words: Giulia Mendes

For Melbourne–based, South Sudanese artist, Atong Atem, there is no greater idea incubator than journeying through her heritage and connecting with unsung communities, globally.

From Fiji to Amsterdam, New York, and Zürich — the latter to attend Art Basel as the inaugural recipient of the prestigious La Prairie Art Award, no less — Atong is driven by the stories shared from the African diaspora living the world over. Known for her vivid and colorful photography combined with hand painting, Atong’s works have been exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Vogue Fashion Fair in Milan, Unseen Amsterdam, and Red Hook Labs in New York. We chat with the artist about her powerful image narrative, life and first impressions in Melbourne, and her top Travel Playbook to explore while in the city.


On early creative influences

I remember my first interactions with creativity because my dad's always been a dedicated writer. He was a photojournalist and also published a few books. I grew up with a parental figure who was constantly working at his craft — he was always typing away or handwriting. Also, my brothers were super into video games. Not long after we moved to Australia, we got a Super Nintendo, and I was fascinated with how the games evolved through PlayStation over time. The disk would come with a booklet talking about the world, the history, and the mythology of that particular game — that was super exciting to me. Recently, I realized that one of the major influences that triggered creativity for me was Queen Amidala in Star Wars. I remember being inspired by her costume and makeup.

On color palette and your storytelling

Color is an inherent part of the way I think about the world. I'm very drawn to color and colorful things. I've had very little clothing that’s not either patterned or has an interesting texture. It's not an intentional thing of wanting to have only highly patterned clothing, it’s what I'm drawn to. It’s creating art out of outfits. Who says you have to tone it down? My relationship to color is intrinsic to what looks good and to curating color, texture, and pattern in a way that isn't necessarily adhering to Western art standards of modesty.

On your South Sudanese heritage

It's important for me to acknowledge my heritage because that's how I started doing the work I do. I was interested in art history, but I found it frustrating and boring that the history I was exposed to at art school was so limited. For me, it wasn't necessarily a conversation around representation or diversity. I'm a young person, and I'd like to be exposed to many different things, because the world is so much bigger than Western art history. A big part of that limited history is the colonial history of the world we live in. The way that history is written and dictated by those in power is so exclusionary. As someone who grew up learning our history, culture and language at home, I was lucky enough to know what I was missing out on. I have a family who existed in those spaces that weren't celebrated. I feel for people who don't know what they're missing out on.

From her homebase in Melbourne, artist Atong Atem creates vibrant and full-of-life portraits. The top line of which, titled ‘A yellow dress, a bouquet’ 2022, earned her the inaugural La Prairie Art Award — a prestige awarded to Australia’s top female artists. As part of the prize, Atong will travel to Switzerland to attend Art Basel, and will have her winning works acquired into the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection. Hero image Atong Atem pictured with her work ‘A yellow dress, a bouquet’ 20221, photo by Felicity Jenkins. First two images Atong Atem ‘A yellow dress, a bouquet 1 2022; ‘A yellow dress, a bouquet 4’ 2022, Art Gallery of New South Wales, La Prairie Art Award 2022; second image Atong at home in Brunswick, photo by Kristoffer Paulsen.

On the influence of colonialism

It was easy for me to say, 'I have this understanding of art-making that doesn't fit within this Eurocentric history that I'm being presented, so I'm going to go seek it out because I know it's out there’. That led to dissecting the depths of colonial destruction in relation to art — colonialism sought to destroy culture in a perpetual way. I remember searching for something along the lines of photographs of African people throughout history — I must have been 21 — and it was ethnographic, colonial, quite violent imagery. I was shocked. When I'm using Google to search for my own history, it will reflect the history of the world in which Google lives, which is colonial history. Then I became interested in ethnographic photography, specifically in the 19th and 20th centuries. My family photos were very similar and came from that same history of image-making — one that was celebratory and powerful, with African people taking photographs of African people. I made a conscious choice to participate in that history of image-making and to learn the language of African studio photography — the tools and visual iconography to emulate in my work. It's very much mine, but it's part of something that has come before me.

On physical and digital travel

It's such a shame that 2020 was the year that I was meant to be traveling and doing it all, and the universe had other plans. The internet has meant that I have been able to do so much more traveling than I could afford, just by being virtually able to connect with people all over the world and see things from their perspectives. It's made me realize how alone and unoriginal my thoughts and ideas are, which is quite good. It makes me really desperate to get out there and participate, but it also gives me permission to do it here. I see these young South Sudanese artists that are in Finland, or in Scotland, or places that I've never been. Places are less physical these days and my relationship to the diaspora is this really tangible thing.

‘The internet has meant that I have been able to do so much more traveling than I could afford, just by being virtually able to connect with people all over the world and see things from their perspectives.’

On where creativity has taken you

I've been to Fiji a few times, Amsterdam and New York — I had a really amazing experience there. I did a residency in Syracuse, which is in upstate New York, and I found a South Sudanese community there and did a gorgeous little photo project with them. It was a mind-blowing experience to find community in a lot of different and unexpected places.

On a project you’re excited about

I'm excited about launching my photobook with the PHOTO Editions, a project called Surat, the Sudanese Arabic word for photos. It's a self-portrait project where I've recreated a bunch of family photos. I'm grabbing on to and embracing the inherent mythology of family record-keeping and creating my own surreal family photo album. That's coming out very soon. We've got scans of actual family photos on the inside back and front cover, and then the book comprises photos of me imitating those family photos. I'm very proud of it. It was a big labor of love.

Combining photography and hand painting, Atong's artwork is a response to Eurocentric teachings and a voice for untold histories. She is drawn to the space left for uncelebrated African culture in art and this pursuit to capture truths untold has led Atong to seek out and dissect the depths of colonial destruction. When she’s not at home creating, Atong loves being submerged in the cozy, welcoming culture of Melbourne. Atong at Melbourne Zoo and in St Kilda, courtesy of Atong Atem.

On resetting your creativity when traveling

I've learned that my relationship with art-making is bigger than just producing stuff. It's about that experiential thing. When I travel, I'm forced to make and create in other ways because I don't have access to my usual tools. Creating and making is much more a pivotal part of my identity than I may realize. That probably got lost because it's so easy to get caught up in things like doing work for exhibitions and art shows — you lose what you want to do and why you want to do it. Traveling is a great reset for me in that way. I don't need a break from creating, I just want a break from stress.

On winning the La Prairie Art Award

It's a huge honor. I'm so bloody excited about getting to travel as part of the prize. It means that I will be forced to do the things that make me want to generate ideas and make art. I'm very excited to go to Switzerland and have a really fun time, because it's summer and everyone's climbing the gorgeous mountains, going for hikes. The lakes are amazing — they look so clear and blue.

‘Traveling is a great reset for me. I don't need a break from creating, I just want a break from stress.’

On moving to Melbourne

I moved to Melbourne in 2014, and in the first two or three years, I hated living here so much. A few years back, I finally bought a puffer jacket and realized: I never hated Melbourne, I was just freezing. I was dressing for Sydney winter and struggling through. As soon as I dressed appropriately, I was like, 'Oh my God, Melbourne's amazing, I love it’.

On your relationship with Melbourne

It's almost too chill. I feel like I've retired already. I've got my little bubble and my go-to places for everything. When I first moved here, I was a lot more adventurous, whereas now we're like an old married couple. My new favorite thing is to meet up with a group of people for dinner at a pub or a low-key restaurant. I don't want to go out to the club and do anything hectic. I want to be in bed by midnight, but I want to see my friends and have fun. It's more about connection, the city being a medium for us to create real, meaningful connections — and by meaningful, I mean talking about episodes of Severance or which schnitzel is better. It's a place that I'm more than happy to grow up in.

What better tour guide to recommend the best art spots in town than an artist herself. For a look under the hood of what’s making the Melbourne art scene tick in a contemporary context, Atong recommends stopping by Gertrude Contemporary (pictured top, courtesy of Gertrude Contemporary), The Ian Potter Centre (picture bottom, courtesy of NGV) which is the all-Australian offshoot of superlative National Gallery of Victoria, as well as Gertrude Glasshouse and Footscray Community Arts.

On seeing local art

I'm a huge fan of Gertrude Contemporary. They've always got some really sick stuff going on. And Gertrude Glasshouse as well as NGV Australia in Fed Square [The Ian Potter Centre]  — it’s so underrated. I really enjoy it every time I've been. There's also always fun stuff on it at Footscray Arts. Melbourne is kind of full of it, and I mean that in a positive way. You can't throw a stone without hitting a gallery here.


On your favorite coffee in Melbourne

Proud Mary is probably the best. My fiancé used to work there, years and years ago. Most of his really close friends he met while he was there. It is such a cultural institution. So that's our go-to coffee every morning, and I just love how dark their roast is. I've never had a Proud Mary's coffee that I didn't like. My other go-to is probably Park Street, because it's so close and they've got good coffee.


‘Gertrude Glasshouse as well as NGV Australia in Fed Square. There's also always fun stuff on it at Footscray Arts. You can't throw a stone without hitting a gallery here.’

On showing friends around for the day

If I had to show friends around Melbourne for a day, I would start with a big, juicy breakfast somewhere. Go to Park Street or Proud Mary, get some coffee, sit in one of the parks near those cafés and get some rays. Then, we’ll walk around Gertrude Street and go shopping at SUKU. Maybe go visit NGV Australia to see what exhibitions they have on, then take a little seat somewhere near the river. Then we’d go to one of the local bars that we love, like Waxflower. I love Waxflower because they've got nice tunes, really great drinks and some desserts. My favorite pub is not exactly a pub, but a chill bar that has pub energy. It's called The Alderman on Lygon Street. The owners work there, they're so lovely and really generous. It's such a cozy little place. But I'm huge on barhopping. I've recently started using OpenTable, because as much as I love consistency, I love to discover something new.


On second-hand shopping

I'm huge on Savers. Give me a giant op shop [second-hand charity store] where I could be there for hours without realizing it. There's a vintage market on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy called Lost and Found Market. It's really fun. I've gotten a lot of amazing stuff from there. There are hundreds of people who have a stall, like a person with ceramics and another with gorgeous vintage furniture. There's another similar place called Retropolis in Preston — obsessed. I got my round kitchen table from there. It's another underrated place because you have to drive past it to see it. It's not like on a main strip, but there's a roller rink built next door.


From a hearty breakfast and some of the city’s (arguably) best coffee at stalwart institution Proud Mary (pictured top, courtesy of Proud Mary), to a relaxed meal with friends at The Alderman (picture middle, courtesy of The Alderman) and finished off with a late night drink, soundtracked by soulful vinyl at Waxflower (pictured bottom, courtesy of Waxflower), Atong has every meal covered in her Melbourne Travel Playbook.

On creatives in Melbourne you’re inspired by at the moment

One of my new favorite artists is Mohamed Chamas, a game designer who does really beautiful VR stuff about religion, singularity and technology. Tig Terera is a filmmaker who I did a short film with, based on his story of migrating here and his mom falling in love with a tram driver who woke her up when she fell asleep after school. It was the last stop and this hot tram driver was like, ‘Excuse me, ma'am. This is the last stop, you should wake up’. It was love at first sight and 20 years later, they're still together. Tig is an amazing film and story writer.

On a window or an aisle seat

‘Can I get a window seat? Don’t want nobody next to me.’ When Erykah Badu came out with ‘Window Seat’ I was like, ‘Yes, window seat every time’.

‘I love Waxflower because they've got nice tunes and really great drinks. My favorite pub is not exactly a pub, but a chill bar that has pub energy. It's called The Alderman on Lygon Street.’

On what song best represents Melbourne for you

I don't know why this is coming to my mind, but it's a song by Kamasi Washington called ‘Street Fighter Mas’. The reason I like it is because I saw Kamasi Washington in 2019 or 18, and you know when you hear something live and it sounds different? Then I just listened to that song and played it religiously. It’s like Melbourne, it’s not easily ‘got’, but when you get it, it's good.

On Melbourne in one word


I'm just thinking about the weather. Living in a place that has such intense weather, and a very intense history as well, means that the people who live here respond to their environment in very subtle and different ways compared to other places. Like the way people eat here, the way they walk around and navigate, feels quite different to other cities I've lived in. But I'm here for it.


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