Artist Atong Atem On The ‘Rollercoaster’ Of Motherhood + How Family Inspires Her Art

Artist Atong Atem On The ‘Rollercoaster’ Of Motherhood + How Family Inspires Her Art


by Christina Karras

Atong with five-month-old Isagani in their Melbourne home.

Atong and Otillo have been together almost five years.

‘We eloped in Denmark just over a year ago and are still sort of planning a big, giant wedding somewhere down the line because we’re both kind of party people,’ Atong says.

Isagani’s nickname has been Sesame since Atong first found out she was pregnant — ‘he was the size of a sesame seed so we started calling him that and it just stuck’.

‘He loves to hug trees and look at flowers. He is curious and charming and very, very talkative.’

The gorgeous family!

Atong says her mum has been a big inspiration and support since Isagani was born.

Atong Atem says motherhood has been just as challenging as she expected, and just as beautiful as she hoped.

The South Sudanese artist is one of Australia’s most famous contemporary young artists, whose vivid portraits and photographic art focus on the stories of African migrants, their cultures, and histories — continuing the legacy of post-colonial African photographers who came before her.

Atong’s vivid works have garnered her a ‘surreal’ whirlwind of local and international acclaim in recent years, after she decided to ‘seriously’ pursue art about a decade ago. But really, she’s been an artist for as long as she can remember.

‘I have vague memories of making tiny mud sculptures with my two old brothers when we were toddlers,’ Atong notes. She was just six years old when her family migrated to New South Wales as refugees, and grew up as one of very few South Sudanese families in Australia at the time. These formative years hold plenty of stories of resilience — something that Atong has carried through to her career, and into the early days motherhood after she and husband Otillo welcomed their first son Isagani in May this year.

Below, Atong openly shares the struggles of her 30-hour labour, how her own mum has guided her through this next chapter, and what it was like travelling to the UK to see her work in the Tate, just six weeks post-partum!

Hi Atong! You welcomed your baby Isagani just earlier this year. How was your pregnancy and labour? Did everything go how you expected it to?

Pregnancy was pretty good for me once I was past the first trimester. Aside from the physical discomforts — I felt really good. Labour, though, was intense. Isagani was almost two weeks over the due date but I still started labour naturally. I had a very holistic, but medically informed birth plan after attending birth classes and talking to friends who’ve had babies, but all of that went out the window once I was in hospital.

I had my waters broken, internal fetal monitoring, pitocin drip, catheter, morphine injection and eventually a cesarean after about 30 hours of labour with baby in distress. I was exhausted and in excruciating pain by the time I went into theatre. I was almost fully dilated with very frequent contractions and absolutely no feeling in my legs from the exhaustion of the contractions. Even with the morphine, it was just so painful.

I finally cried with Otillo after agreeing to the cesarean and asking for a few minutes alone. My mum was with us and she stepped outside to process it herself. In the days after they both told me how difficult it was to watch me endure so much pain for so long, especially at the end when I was so exhausted I couldn’t move my legs without their help. Everything happened so quickly after that and then all of a sudden I’m holding this tiny, little person on my chest. Isagani’s eyes were wide open when they passed him to me and he stared into my eyes for what felt like years. Then another flash of time and I’m holding him in my own bed a few days later while healing and processing the birth. It felt so overwhelming at the time.

How did you feel about becoming a mother, and how has motherhood been so far?

So far motherhood has been as challenging as expected: exhaustion, social devaluation of feminine-coded roles, postpartum emotional rollercoasters. It’s also been as beautiful as I hoped. I love being as a good a parent as I can be and watching this little person I made figure out the world. There are so many tiny things he does every day that make my heart melt.

I struggled a lot in the first few weeks as I began to acknowledge and recover from my somewhat traumatic birth experience. I found it really difficult to come to terms with the fact that millions of people experience what I did, and worse, every day, and most don’t have the same resources and support that I have. I was likely projecting the trauma of my own experience so that I didn’t have to feel it, but it’s still such an overwhelming thing to sit with. Giving birth, even when it goes well, is a very big and often traumatic experience but as far as our society is concerned, you wouldn’t know that.

Have the themes and inspirations behind your work changed or evolved since having your own child?

I haven’t made much work since Isagani was born, but my most recent work was a series of photographic works for an exhibition at Photo Ireland in June this year, that featured portraits of me heavily pregnant.

The series, Dust, spoke about birth and death and the ceremonies around them — combining references to Christianity and Dinka mythology — especially the role of earth and dirt in end-of-life rituals. The work was conceived before I was pregnant but when the time came to photograph, I was almost nine months pregnant. There is something intense about performing and referencing end of life rituals with a full term baby in your body so the work has definitely evolved.

How has your own childhood and formative experience migrating to Australia influenced how you hope to raise Isagani?

I had just turned 32 a month earlier when I gave birth to Isagani, so I thought a lot about my mother who had her fifth child at 31. She stayed with us for about a month at the end of my pregnancy and into the first weeks of Isagani’s life. I had always known my mum as a confident and caring mother, so it was really special to share that with her. It was also extremely overwhelming thinking about her experience with five kids at my age, alone in a new country. Mum was pregnant with my youngest sister when we came to Australia as refugees. I still have no idea how she did it, and when I asked her she confessed to not knowing either.

She told me over and over how strong and capable she felt I was, after watching me labour and then take care of Isagani, and I genuinely have no idea how she can say that! I’m not alone here, nor am I new. Everything is in place for my motherhood experience to be pretty fine and yet my mum has nothing but praise for Otillo and I. She has inspired me to do what I can to ensure my child will become a well adjusted, happy person surrounded by so much love.

Just six weeks post-partum, you travelled as a family to the UK and got to see your works in the Tate! Tell us about that trip.

The trip was incredible but in hindsight I wasn’t ready to leave my bed. I think I was fuelled by adrenaline and excitement. I so badly wanted to go celebrate this incredible experience with my family, and Sesame was such a low-needs baby at six and seven weeks. He slept 16 or so hours a day, ate on a pretty reliable schedule and was content to play with us in short bursts.

I was still healing physically and emotionally so I probably needed some more time, but I don’t regret going at all. It’s probably the last big trip we’ll be able to do for a while.

What has being a mother taught you about yourself?

It’s been my favourite job to date. It’s also a deeply emotional experience. I’ve become more tender and sensitive — especially to injustice. Besides that, I seem to have endless patience and the ability to push through a long day as long as I get to hold Isagani at the end of it all. 

What’s next for you? Do you have any exhibitions coming up that you are excited about?

I’m showing work from Dust, the series curated by Catherine McKinley for Photo Ireland, at Mars Gallery this December!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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