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Future Shapers Arts Atong Atem
Photograph: Supplied

Future Shapers: Atong Atem, the artist holding up a mirror to minorities

She's showing off the faces within our city in beautiful ways

Written by
Rushani Epa

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability VictoriaPat Nourse (artistic director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In the arts, one such person is Atong Atem.

Atong Atem is a South Sudanese visual artist and writer who was born in Ethiopia and migrated to Australia as a child. Her work explores the experiences of young immigrants, postcolonial practices in the diaspora, the relationship between public and private spaces and identity through portraiture. 

She began to exhibit her photography in 2016, the same year she was awarded the Melt Portrait Prize at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Since that time, she has participated in several group exhibitions, held five solo shows, and been awarded the NGV + Mecca Cosmetica M-power Grant in 2017, and the Light Work New York artist residency in 2018.

Can you explain a little bit about your work and what it is you do? 

I’m a visual artist working predominantly with photography and film, and I sometimes write, too. Most of my work is interconnected. I tend to grow ideas from the seeds of existing concepts and ideas that I’ve explored. I’m interested in history and visual languages, iconography, colour, texture and making beautiful things.

What are you working on right now?

At the moment I’m finishing up a public art project, an exhibition in London and working on some works for upcoming art fairs.

You’ve been selected by our panel as being someone who has a vision for the future of Melbourne – what do you think it is about your work that’s so visionary? 

My work sometimes draws on science fiction and futurism, so maybe it’s literal?

What kind of future would you like to see for Melbourne? 

I would love for all industries to more honestly reflect the people of the city; that is the intrinsically broad and complex points of views and cultures. I’d like to see this city reflect material respect and support, beyond acknowledgments, of First Nations communities here including the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin nations. I’m seeing a lot of young people work towards material change in their activism, and I’d like to see that more broadly in the future of our city.

What advice would you give to others seeking to make a change in your industry? 

Working in the arts over the last decade I’ve noticed most of the change that I’ve celebrated or benefited from has come from collective work. I’m at an early stage in a lot of ways, but so far, working collectively and sharing support seems to be the most sustainable and useful way to see positive change in an industry. That doesn’t mean that ideas can’t start from an individual, though. I’m part of a huge group of artists who just happen to want similar things.

Why do you think equal representation is so important? And how is the work that you’re doing aiming to achieve this?

I’m interested in seeing movement towards material change in the arts. A lot of the work I do is behind the scenes because it’s a bit too easy for things like representation/diversity/inclusivity to become like marketing buzzwords that can be cosmetically achieved. I’ve had the pleasure of working at the intersection of art, fashion, music and film throughout my career and in those industries, especially, it’s easy for the change we see outwardly to be performative and surface level. I’m interested in diversity and inclusion throughout the entire breadth of the industries I work in. It makes for a much more honest depiction of the world we live in and, honestly, much, MUCH better work.

Read about more of our Future Shapers

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