ATONG ATEM: LOOK AGAIN
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 97, July-September 2021.
Best known for her acclaimed photographs exploring African identity, Atong Atem is expanding her practice to incorporate video. The Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese artist’s new highly stylised film Banksia, 2021, considers the limits of Australian identity by referencing and commenting on the overlooked history of early African settlers who arrived in the First Fleet to Australia in 1788.
This is an important development in the artist’s practice, and has seen her incorporate new mediums to advance her interest in bodies and identity. However, this exciting foray into the moving image keeps most of the preoccupations that typify her luscious pictures alive, such as her palpable concerns with migration. The non-linear video shares many similarities with her past work and references the aesthetics of stage photography that define her practice, while also exploring the new possibilities that a moving camera affords her, including the capacity to weave abstract narratives. The resulting work is like a dream unfolding on screen.
Atong situates us in the complex history of photography and the politics of representation, where the Western gaze has used the invention of the camera to create the Other.The video moves on to show a photographic tableau staged within a colonial building and ends with a group of women, who are clapping, putting on jewellery, and singing in an expression of culture. This scene continues to show water – this time pouring from a jar – to invoke the idea of the shore and the arrival of African people in the First Fleet.
This exemplifies the core of the work, which is to consider sidelined histories of migration in so-called Australia. The artist has a personal connection to this theme, having herself moved to this country as a refugee in the 1990s. Thus, she is preternaturally able to question the white myth of Australia and acknowledge the African settlers that precede her. The sea of the past meets the river of the present in Banksia, where the tides of the future wash away the misconceptions of this nation.