Atong Atem is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and dear friend based in Naarm (Melbourne). Her art is inspired by her travels, cultural influences, and the beauty of nature. Combining photography and hand painting, her works are distinguished by her unique use of colour, pattern and striking portraiture. She’s held five solo shows, been awarded the NGV + Mecca Cosmetica M-power grant in 2017, Light Work New York artist residency in 2018 and the La Prairie art award in 2022. We chat to Atong about life as a full time artist, how she’s diverged from grand political statements to exploring personal truths and how she finds her creative flow.
I’d love to start by asking how you came to be where you are, as a practicing artist today?
I started out studying architecture then met a group of performers and artists in Newcastle who I traveled to Melbourne with to perform at a travelling festival. I was 19 and had a life changing moment. I realised that making art could be a full time passion and with support, so much incredible work can happen. I dropped out of architecture and eventually went to art school after a few other attempts. Studying art history outside of the usual European canon widened my horizons and allowed me to imagine so many possibilities as an artist. Since then I’ve tried my hand at so many different things from writing to video and painting - just because of that initial teenaged introduction to art.
What does this practice mean to you as an outlet?
My art practice started out as a part of my everyday life. I used to journal daily and draw sketches on the train constantly so I’ve always made art in small, intimate ways. Since becoming a full time artist, I’m relearning the necessity for a daily, ritualistic arts practice. I use art to feel grounded, to float away, to understand, to question. It’s part of my existence in the world. I don’t draw and write daily anymore, but I find time to look at art and think about it daily. Appreciating art is also part of my practice.
How has your creative process developed over the years to become what it is today?
I started off trying to make big statements as an artist. Eventually, I started feeling the depths of my intimate life moments. I’m more interested in truth these days, rather than grand statements. I think there’s a lot to be learned from intimate, personal truths. My practice is about my own fascination with the small cellular parts of me. It’s tiny in a way but it feels effortless and heavy.
Your other recent work, Photoweavings (2021) diverges from your beautifully stylised portraiture into a more abstract realm. Could you share a bit about the process and intention behind it?
In an attempt to zoom into the tiny parts of me, I’ve been making more and more self portraits. The Monstera series was about revisiting old self portraits and contributing new layers to them. I feel that all my work is an ongoing self portrait so it’s easy to get lost in tiny details. This series was about giving myself permission to get lost a bit. I printed photos, cut them into thin strips and wove them together then scanned them allowing for digital errors in some of the scans. These works are about the endless interpretations of my face but also about the practice itself. Digital photography can feel so removed and I often miss the tactile relationship to making that other mediums have.
Your work is socially and politically driven, could you share with us the underlying dialogue and themes behind your art?
My work used to be about representation and identity. It felt like a really important mission when I was a lot younger. Over time, I’m beginning to find joy and actual productivity in intimate interpersonal relationships and reflecting my broader politics in that. Collaboration and cultural pride are important to me. Talking about colonialism and history is important to me so I reflect its impact on my immediate family because I KNOW that. There’s so much I don’t know but the things I do are relevant. My politics is about centring decolonisation and justice. That often means shutting up and sharing. I guess that means that my art practice has become more personal in response and it feels much more earnest now.
"Since becoming a full time artist, I’m relearning the necessity for a daily, ritualistic arts practice. I use art to feel grounded, to float away, to understand, to question."
Creative flow can be elusive sometimes, what do you do to stay inspired?
I watch The Simpsons and go to art galleries when I can. I love getting out of the city when I can. Honestly making is the best way for me to get inspired but I realistically procrastinate a lot. That has its uses too I reckon.
As a friend of ours, we know that you’re really driven and this can sometimes outweigh your downtime. What do you do to balance that tendency?
I try really, really hard to take time away from my computer. It rarely happens, and I tend to commit to too many projects but taking a day off and doing absolutely no work at least once a week if I can is really important. I get extremely anxious and stressed with work so not only is it good for my work flow but it’s also good for my mental health.
What are you currently exploring and working on in your creative practice?
I’m loving soft sculpture and video at the moment! I’m excited about installation and sculpture and trying my hand and new things which I’ll be hopefully showing soon!!
Some rapid fire Q’s, Favourite place:
To swim: Gordon’s bay in Sydney or the swimming hole in Warrandyte with the hole through the rock.
To eat: Shop Ramen
To drink: Runner Up Bar
To shop: Suku Home
To relax: The Japanese Bathhouse in Collingwood