Atong Atem Captures the Complexity of Africa's Diaspora In 'Third Culture Kids'

Huffington Post shares a major feature by Priscilla Frank on artist Atong Atem and her photographs of 'Third Culture Kids'. Atem was age 6 when her family left her native South Sudan, moving through Ethiopia to a refugee camp in Kenya. Soon, the family migrated to Australia, where Atong Atem is now an art student based in Melbourne. 

The artist identifies herself as an outsider, making her viscerally aware of the way a single person can occupy many times, places and cultures at once. In her photography series “Third Culture Kids,” Atem crafts staged and stylized portraits of other such individuals, Australia’s second-generation African youth, exploring the ways race, colonialism and history play into one’s constructed sense of self. "

Atong Atem is influenced by groundbreaking West African studio portraitists like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. Between 1940 and 1960, Keïta took now-iconic black-and-white portraits of Malian citizens and families. Mixing elements of Western and African visual culture yielded vibrant modern portraits representing African identity in all of its complexity. 

Malick Sidibé lensed vibrant, sophisticated images, emerging in the 1960s as Mali's only traveling documentary photographer. The artist died in April, having "changed the way Westerners look at Africa," said Jack Shainman who was showing Sidibé's images in his New York gallery. 

Atem's own identity is a complex collage that is both troubling and liberating. “I feel not South Sudanese enough, or not Australian enough. I have to accept that I’ll never be both: those ideas are completely fabricated from outside of myself. For a lot of people who realize they exist in that in-between space, it’s kind of upsetting because you’re neither this nor that. Her being a third culture kid affords her a broad platform on which to define herself. 

(More images at Huff Po.) Atong Atem was interviewed in 2015 by i-D

New York has a vibrant tribe of South Sudanese models and artists working to help friends and family in war-torn South Sudan. Read AOC's Nykhor Paul's 'We Are Nilotic' T-Shirts Zero In On South Sudan's Fragile Beauty in Women's News.