When identity is in flux

Adella Muorwel

A sense of displacement is common among migrant youth. Photo: Ryan McGuire https://www.flickr.com/photos/free_for_commercial_use/
A sense of displacement is common among migrant youth. Photo: Ryan McGuire https://www.flickr.com/photos/free_for_commercial_use/

Migrants say that whatever the circumstances that led to their movement from one home to another, they feel displaced.

Some are faced with the choice of assimilating and losing their culture or keeping their culture and remaining an ‘other’, while others say they don’t know enough about either cultures to belong to one.

An emerging wave of young South Sudanese women are finding middle ground and taking charge of their identities through art as a medium.

Looking at Atong Atem you can easily see why she is a success in her chosen field of art – she has a clever sense of humour and is very sure of her identity.

It’s easy to be charmed by her.

We sit in her living room, and behind her lay canvases of her art, some of them complete and others still in progress.

Seeing Atems’s art is an experience, as it conveys a lot of her personality but also shows you a glimpse of her than can only be seen through her art.

You are able to see her artistic identity, which she describes as that of ‘a third culture kid’.

“What it is, is a person who grows up or lives in a culture outside their parents culture or ‘their’ home culture which is you know most refugees and displaced people and even expats,” Atem says.

Now 25, Atem has managed to find a way to exist within this ‘third culture’ identity and that is through her art.

She focuses her art on home and identity because “I feel like the things that we gravitate to are the things that we know well and most intimately, and what I know really well is my identity and my home, and my concepts of home.”

Atem says that as someone who was born outside this country but grew up here for most of her life, she’s always trying to establish her idea of home and why it’s an important concept for her.

She gravitates towards the ‘third culture’ identity because it “simply describes that in between space that you occupy as somebody who is not completely assimilated to or accepted by the society that they currently live in, but is removed from and maybe not completely accepted by the culture that they come from.”

Atem says that the ‘third culture’ identity always seemed isolated and lonely but for her knowing that there are other people in the world who occupy the same space is empowering.

***

Aćol Agaar is another young South Sudanese woman who although doesn’t explicitly mention identifying as a ‘third culture kid’, fits the description.

It is a sunny afternoon and we meet in Fitzroy at 3CR community radio on Smith Street.

Although the weather is beautiful, we’re on a main road and there is too much noise from the traffic and pedestrians to talk outside.

We make our way inside 3CR to the conference room upstairs and begin the interview.

From our first meeting she’s been ready with a smile and quick to joke but once the interview begins there is a seriousness that overcomes her when she starts speaking about her art and culture.

Sitting forward in her chair in the dimly lit room she talks about what has influenced her work.

“My art mainly covers my culture, where I come from, I think the Dinka culture really intrigues me a lot, so most of my art, everything I do there’s always going to be some sort of aspect of where I come from in there, ” Agaar says.

Agaar was born in Nairobi and moved to Australia at the age of 7.

She believes it’s important for her to explore her culture in order to learn more about it.

She comes across as someone who is trying to find a balance and create an identity from being both South Sudanese by birth, and Australian by citizenship.

Agaar says all the things she knows about South Sudanese culture are not from first hand experience.

Instead they were taught to her by her parents to make sure a piece of her homeland is a part of her.

“My parents have always made it their number one priority to make sure that I still speak Dinka, I still know how to dance our traditional dance, I know how to make our foods,” she says.

“They’ve worked really hard and well to make sure that I’m still you know South Sudanese internally and not just by the way I look.”

She’s been painting for a few years but has just now began to showcase her work, she says it’s because she’s been uninterested in showing her work to people who she feels won’t get it.

“…I need to expose it to an audience that can actually relate to it, so I haven’t really had a great interest in kind of fully being out in the Melbourne art world,” Agaar says.

***

South Sudanese film student and actress Awak Kongor comes across as shy but humble and passionate.

She describes her achievements briefly, but praises those who helped and worked with her much more than she talks about herself.

We sit in a bright room with a table between us.

She constantly smiles (and it’s contagious), as she proudly explains her passion for exploring south Sudanese stories.

“It’s important to me because I don’t know much about my own culture and it is my very favourite culture as well,” Ms Kongor said.

“I think south Sudanese culture, and history and people are rich and passionate and they’re just so vibrant in their everyday living and that’s why I [want to] capture them in film.”

For these three women exploring South Sudanese culture is a way to stay connected to home, while making their home here in Australia.