Atong Atem didn’t mean to become a photographer. In fact, after high school she started studying architecture at Newcastle University, before eventually realising it wasn’t for her.
After meeting a group of ‘bohemian, hippy types’, and travelling to Sydney, Atong decided to leave architecture behind and enrol in Fine Art, majoring in painting. She later moved to Melbourne, completing her Fine Arts degree at RMIT. There, she began to experiment with photography and painting, hand-tinting her own photographs, paying homage to the history of studio photography, and forging her own contemporary style.
Atong has mastered the use of colour in her work. Bright, clashing prints often adorn her subjects, who pose with strength and grace in their hyper-patterned environments. The effect, as Atong describes, is ‘grand and anti-minimalist’.
Growing up on the Central Coast of New South Wales and coming from a South Sudanese background, Atong’s work explores personal history and systemic inequalities. ‘Most of my work is about taking ownership of my own narrative,’ she elaborates, ‘and also, participating in a pre-existing history of art that centres blackness and our visual languages of expression.’
Atong’s work has reached new notoriety recently, after she received the Mecca M-Power Scholarship, in conjunction with the NGV. ‘I was awarded the prize while I was on life hiatus in Fiji, considering settling down there for a while,’ she says. ‘It couldn’t have come at a more pivotal moment for me.’ The scholarship from Mecca sees Atong’s powerful artwork featured on a limited-edition release of beauty empire’s best-selling To Save Face sunscreen for International Women’s Day (with all proceeds going towards The Hunger Project), as well as one-on-one mentoring opportunities and a cash prize that has allowed her to buy equipment and other resources to expand her practice.
To be recognised by such significant bodies is a huge accomplishment, but for Atong, career milestones like this are about more than just her own practice.
‘I think the biggest “YESSSSS!!” moments come from meeting other young black people… and feeling understood by my own community,’ she explains, ‘when our options for success are extremely limited, it becomes almost impossible to imagine yourself doing a thing you love, let alone a thing you don’t see people like you doing. I’d like to think my continued pushing through the Australian art world is helping to create wider and more accommodating paths.’