Atong Atem is a South Sudanese photographer based in Melbourne, Australia, who takes photos exploring the cultural identities of first and second-generation African migrants in Australia.
In a recent photo series she focuses on the social and cultural identities constructed by first and second generation Africans living in the diaspora. VICE spoke to her about living between two cultures, and untangling her home’s complex colonial histories. Her images focus on Third Culture Kids, who are often growing up in a perpetual identity crisis.
Drawing on the legacy of West African studio portraiture popularized by Seydou Keita, Samuel Fosso, and Malick Sidibe, among others, Atem’s Third Culture Kids gaze softly into the camera against floral backdrops.
When did racial and cultural identity enter your work?
I’ve always been making art that was Afro-centric or turned towards colonialism, race, and gender. I got into that young from coming to Australia as a migrant. You’re almost forced to confront your identity as an “other” immediately. I’m ethnically South Sudanese, but my family migrated as refugees when I was six years old after leaving South Sudan via Ethiopia and living in a refugee camp in Kenya.
I remember painting portraits of my family in primary school. Everybody else used the peachy, pastel coloured crayons, so I would too. It wasn’t until a teacher confronted me and said, “why aren’t you using brown crayons?”, that I started questioning and thinking about my position in Australian culture and society. I was so ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t even recognise my identity in the colours I was using. I made a decision to only use brown colours-that translated to exploring blackness later on in life.
Your series is about Third Culture Kids. What does that mean to you?
There are days where I feel I know my identity and I’m really strong in it, and then there are days where I’m like, who am I in this world? I think it’s cool to recognise that a lot of people have those experiences-not just in relation to cultural identity, but gender and sexuality and what they want to do in life. Being a Third Culture Kid, means recognising there’s a space that exists between the culture we’re from and the culture we’re living in. I feel not South Sudanese enough, or not Australian enough. I have to accept that I’ll never be both: those ideas are completely fabricated from outside of myself. For a lot of people who realise they exist in that in-between space, it’s kind of upsetting because you’re neither this nor that. But being a third culture kid can be whatever you want.
All images by atong atem