Atong Atem’s ‘Surat’ about ‘South Sudan, so-called Australia and everywhere else in between’

Atong Atem’s ‘Surat’ about ‘South Sudan, so-called Australia and everywhere else in between’

1 / 6

Atong Atem's 'Surat' captures a 'culture in flux' and it's showing outside the Old Treasury Building until May 22.

Atem is a renowned Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese artist and writer living and working in Melbourne / Naarm. Her photographic practice explores migrant narratives, postcolonial practices in the African diaspora, and concepts of identity, home, and liminal space, and her dynamic portraiture references widely, from Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita to science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Her current exhibition, Surat, is currently showing in Melbourne in rather spectacular fashion – as you’ll glimpse below – but is perhaps most importantly also the first photobook from Atem, and the second in the PHOTO Editions series.

Explore Melbourne’s latest art events, exhibitions and performances here.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Atong Atem (@atongatem)

Surat (which translates from Sudanese Arabic as ‘snapshots’) is described as an homage to family photos and the characters within them. Working on the series throughout 2021, Atem revisited her family photo albums, which span decades and continents, restaging and reimagining the scenes and players they depict. The resulting book is a series of performances as self portraits, documenting the act of photographing and being photographed, framing and being framed. It is a performative depiction of photography, utilising the repetition of dressing, sitting, posing, changing, testing, adjusting and capturing that is so often implicit in the medium.

‘We sing songs to tell history and we dress up and sit for photographs to mythologise our histories,’ says Atem. “This body of work honours the Dinka tradition of record-keeping and archiving as an intimate cultural practice.

“We have few things that travel continents with us as familial practises. We have recipes and textiles, crocheted doilies and Majok beads, and we have photo albums. Some faces in our photographs are drawn over with a marker, some cut out entirely. Some photos are much, much older than me, others were printed from an iPhone. Photos are gestures, examples of culture in flux.

“It’s about South Sudan, so-called Australia and everywhere else in between that I’ve rested my head to dream about my people – or rather, the depictions of people I don’t know but am connected to through photographs.”

The photobook also features an essay by Atem’s father, former South Sudanese Deputy Minister of Information and journalist Atem Yaak Atem. Surat will be launched at the PHOTO 2022 Photobook Weekend (21-22 May 2022), and will be exhibited at PHOTO 2022 outside the Old Treasury Building 29 April – 22 May.

For more information, visit the PHOTO website here.