The Hanging: Atong Atem, ‘Us’

April 28th 2017

Adella, 2015 

Atong Atem is a Third Culture Kid. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Melbourne, her photographs are about the “space that exists between the culture we’re from and the culture we’re living in”.

Her portrait series, Us, is based on ethnographic studio photography. You know, those uncomfortable photographs from the 19th century you would find in history books. The kind colonial powers would send back home to say, “This, this is Africa.” But they were ultimately fulfilling their own exotic desires and narratives.

Atem has reclaimed the studio photography style by creating images that are a celebration of black identity.

She photographs her friends in the style of awkwardly formal suburban family photos – complete with highly stylised fake flowers and ornate accessories – but uses hyper-saturated colours and busy patterns.

Left: Paanda, 2016. Right: Self Portrait With Plastic Flowers, 2016 


What makes Atem’s photographs special is that they exist between cultures. In one portrait, a friend sits in a vintage onesie with her face painted in tribal makeup, framed by a hot pink wall hanging. In images like this, no one cultural identity can be easily pinned down.

While ethnographic photography was used as a tool to put people in boxes, each one of Atem’s portraits is bursting with an expression of the sitter’s unique personality – whether it’s defiant, fragile or inquisitive.

What interests Atem about colonisation is how much of European culture is adopted by the occupied country, and subsequently adapted and made their own. For example, Atem explains that the wax prints fabrics that we associate with Africa now were actually introduced by the Dutch after they had traveled through Indonesia.

Atem identifies with this complicated cultural identity, growing up as the only black family where she lived in Melbourne and having to develop her own sense of culture. This series, Us, is a way of Atem saying, “this, this is me”.



WHAT: ‘Us’ by Atong Atem
WHEN: 14 Feb – 28 May, 2017
WHERE: Custom’s House Sydney
HOW MUCH: Free – more info here


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FBi’s Arts & Culture executive producer.

Read more from Nerida Ross