We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of NSW stands.


Sahara, from the series To be real



Atong Atem

Ethiopia, Australia

1991 –

  • Details

    Place where the work was made
    Media category
    Materials used
    Illford smooth pearl print
    149.8 x 100.0 cm image; 155.6 x 106.0 cm sheet
    Signature & date

    Not signed. Not dated.

    Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors 2021
    Not on display
    Accession number
    © Atong Atem

    Reproduction requests

    Artist information
    Atong Atem

    Works in the collection


  • About

    Atong Atem is an Ethiopian born, South Sudanese artist living in Melbourne who works primarily with photography and moving image. Her dynamic portraiture is a conduit for examining lines of community and connection. Atem’s photographs sit against the long history of ethnographic depictions of African people. They are an act of reclamation over representation, for her practice is both a mode of artistic inquiry and a form of activism.

    Working against the codified language of ethnographic photography, Atem builds radically different compositional structures within the space of the studio. Each scene is staged; through props, back drops, costuming and makeup. Atem creates tableaux that are laden with cultural signifiers and often draw on elements of South Sudanese Dinka culture. Her photographs celebrate their subjects rather than typecast them.

    Atem’s work sits in close dialogue with the work of Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keïta and Philip Kwame Apagya, all of whom redefined the representation of African people in the mid 20th century through studio portraiture that invested agency and attentive reverence in the subjects themselves. They form part of the pantheon of cultural figures that Atem cites both directly and obliquely in her work and which includes other critical voices like science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Atem’s interest in science fiction and afrofuturism materialises in the way her photographs flirt with fantasy. Each image is narratively inflected – a space for conjuring as well as documenting.

    Atem amplifies the slippage between the real and the fictive in her series To be real. Hypnotic and awash with colour, these portraits present as ciphers that tease out the tension between artifice and intimacy. Untethered from any discernible context, the photographs speak to the way we construct and concoct narratives through images. The ruse is revealed in Sabba and Gabby, a tender portrait of woman and child. Here we also catch glimpses of the studio set up; the stands holding the backdrop, the world beyond the frame. The image is an artifice but one that can be wielded for both emotive impact and political assertion. For here, the subjects are shown in their own light.

  • Places

    Where the work was made


  • Exhibition history

    Shown in 1 exhibition

    • Making Worlds, Art Gallery of New South Wales, North Building, Sydney, 03 Dec 2022–2023

Other works by Atong Atem