First published in VAULT, Issue 17.
Seeing can be synonymous with discovering. We often forget that the things that we look at aren’t made real by the act of looking but inhabit universes of their own. This hit me with a jolt the first time I stumbled upon an image of two women, staring defiantly at the viewer against a patterned backdrop by Atong Atem at Gertrude Contemporary earlier this year. The Melbourne artist, who moved to Australia from Bor, South Sudan as a child, draws on the legacy of African photographers such as Malick Sidibé, whose images capture the freewheeling energy of post-independence Mali and Seydou Keïta, whose studio portraits are a joyous corrective to dour, ethnographic studies. Her images use African iconography — wax print fabrics, headdresses, flowers — to offer a visual affront to a world intent on both cashing in on blackness and finding new ways to revive the old, colonial gaze. VAULT caught up with Atem, who’s shown her work at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn and Amsterdam’s Unseen Photo Fair, to talk about the politics of looking and the power of making images that shake off historical weight.
Earlier this year, you exhibited a body of work, Studio Series, at Gertrude Contemporary and also showed as part of New African Photography at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn. When did you first start taking photos?
When I was first studying architecture at university in 2010, I was just out of high school and didn’t have a solid understanding of race and colonialism, which are a big part of my practice now. It was so exciting when I started coming across those themes in the context of art-making and contemporary art. I started investigating the ways uni was lacking and why I wasn’t seeing reflections of myself and my way of thinking. I discovered a lot of African photographers — people like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta — who were working in the studio photography style, which I was really familiar with. It all started with my personal curiosity.
Your series, Third Culture Kids, features your friends as subjects, adorned with fake flowers and African wax print fabrics against elaborate backdrops. Your visual language explicitly references African studio photography, a mainstay of colonial times. How did the work come about?
It all ties into the notion of investigating colonialism as a black woman living in Australia within the context of art. When I started that series, I’d just moved to Melbourne from New South Wales. I’d lived on the Central Cost, which was incredibly white and Melbourne was the opposite. I became friends with a collective of young African people here, Still Nomads, and they’ve become my closest friends. It was amazing to find people who are really similar to me and are also investigating colonialism, colourism, race and feminism — all this amazing stuff that I’d spent my whole life thinking about but didn’t know how to vocalise. That’s why I photographed them.
The people who I collaborate with have their own references for those images and what they mean to them in terms of their own family albums, which are filled with really similar photographs. Although I bring in my own options for props and set backdrops, I’m very conscious of not wanting to represent my friends in [my own] way. It’s a collaboration.
You’ve said before that your influences include the Ghanaian photographer Philip Kwame Apagya, New York sculptor Wangechi Mutu and British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Why is decolonising blackness important to you and how can artists find power in resisting the gaze of white audiences?
A lot of my motivation comes from [the way African communities are] represented in the media or things that I didn’t have access to as a young person who needed to have their self-esteem reassured. Part of the reason I make art at all is because, growing up, I didn’t see myself represented in the art world or in the media or anywhere and led myself to believe that I wasn’t allowed to occupy that space. As much as someone can be incredibly self-confident, capable or talented, when you don’t see yourself represented anywhere it confirms the fact that whatever society says about you is correct. The liminal space that we live in is so limiting.
I was so excited when I saw the work that I’m constantly referencing because it subverts the idea that there are certain acceptable ways to be black or African or that my art should look a certain way or I shouldn’t be making art at all. That’s why I studied architecture initially because I thought maybe art isn’t for me. But I’m terrible at maths and my architectural drawing teachers was like, ‘go to art school, what are you doing here!’
I think about the gaze as a system of control, whether it’s the white gaze, the male gaze or the heteronormative gaze. When we subvert it, ignore it, draw attention to its negative aspects or act in ways that it doesn’t permit us to act, we take power into our own hands.
The thing I find amazing about studio photography it is that it started at the height of colonialism with photographers that were coming out of Africa. Just this idea that Africans were like, ‘okay, the British or French are taking photos of us, controlling our image and representing our cultures and personal identities the way you want — we’re going to take this camera and take photos of ourselves the way we want to.’ Even if it mimics the white gaze, if it’s coming from that culture of individuals, then it’s powerful. It’s something that applies to this day.
Who is breaking ground in this arena?
The photographers that I was in the group show with at Red Hook Labs. Delphine Diallo, who makes really surrealist collages, images and portraiture and a photographer named Lakin Ogunbanwu who showed a series on traditional Nigerian headwear. There’s also a London stylist, Ibrahim Kamara, who’s part of a collection of stylists and artists who live around the world who are challenging black masculinity. They do fashion projects and take amazing portraits of dark-skinned black men against very soft backdrops. I’ve also seen a lot of cool stuff around futuristic representations of blackness. There’s a new hyper-awareness of the way Africans have been presented in art and media. It’s an [an important] moment in African art.