The Rebirth of Aweng Chuol

The Rebirth of Aweng Chuol

Story by Mario Abad / Photography by Bryan Huynh

In December of last year, Aweng Ade-Chuol tied the knot with her fiancé Alexus in a private, intimate New York ceremony attended by no more than a handful of people. A photo she recently shared of the couple walking down an East Village sidewalk— Aweng in an oversized Kwaidan Editions suit and her bride in a romantic Pyer Moss gown — took on a deeper meaning amidst the dialogue around Pride and Black representation this month.

The South Sudanese model, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to Australia at age seven, understands the significance of the occasion. (In Sudan, same-sex couples have no legal recognition and gay marriage has been constitutionally banned in the country since 2011.)

"It's been a war, but we've battled it together," she says. "Which is really great. I'm very grateful. The fact that I married someone who's so human and understands me so well — it's like if you can be stuck with someone for three months every single hour, then you're unstoppable."

It all amounts to a whirlwind of emotions for the 21-year-old law and psychology student, who was discovered while working the register at a McDonald's in Sydney. Prior to all the COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns, Aweng has walked for brands like Prabal Gurung, Savage x Fenty and Vetements (where she was booked as a worldwide exclusive) and starred in campaigns for De Beers, GCDS and Balmain x Puma.

She's also become a fierce advocate for the Sudanese refugee crisis and mental healthcare for girls, addressing these topics as a speaker at the UN's Mental Health Forum. Some of the organizations she's been affiliated include War Child and Children in Conflict.

Much like Aweng, Alton Mason's rise in the fashion world has been marked by a series of early milestones. (Who could forget when he made history as the first Black male to walk for Chanel?) Naturally, as young twenty-something Black models working in a notoriously cutthroat, racist industry, the two have quite a bit in common. Below, Alton interviews his good friend Aweng for an honest discussion around LGBT representation, Black lives, family and staying resilient amidst everything going on in the world.

Catsuit: Mugler, Hat: House of Malakai, Jewelry: Pebble London

Alton Mason: So, I'm here to interview the legendary, the rare, the icon, the beauty Aweng herself. First off, I want to start by saying this is an honor to be interviewing someone who is so unique and so bold and outspoken and someone who represents that so well. Thank you for being here.

Aweng Ade-Chuol: Thank you, Alton! I love you!

Alton: I love you, too. I checked in on you, but as friends, I just want to know exactly how you're feeling about everything that's going on around you [and] everything in New York.

Aweng: I feel like I definitely hit my limit with trauma. That's where I'm at to be honest. I'm not even overwhelmed or sad anymore, I'm just almost swimming through everything. At first, I was angry, pissed, crying, and then I went quiet and became timid. Now I'm just like, "I can't save the whole world." I can't beat myself up for not doing certain things or not being in a certain position. I'm very calm and collected. I've had my moment to break down. I went to a psych ward at one point. I got two therapists. I've had it all. Now I've decided that I'll do my best and my best is enough and that's it.

Alton: Yeah that's what we need... just to be you. Be your best, no expectations other than that because this is trauma. No one has the answers right now; no one can hold anyone accountable on how they should feel.

Aweng: At the beginning, I felt as if I'm in a position where I could do more, so then I started doing a lot but then it was too much because I started to lose my mental [health] — and I needed to step back.

Alton: You sound just like me!

Aweng: I'll tell you it's been a lot. It takes a lot of turmoil out of you, it takes a lot of energy. I've just been really exhausted the past two/ three months, but now I'm learning that at the end of the day I'm one human and I can't change the whole world and all the laws. I can't wake up and change America, so I've just stepped through my own zone and do things at my own pace. If it gets done it gets done, if it doesn't it doesn't. That's where I'm at right now. That's why I wanted to just take time off to be just existing in New York. I feel like New York is so toxic right now.

Alton: Yeah, you need nature. You need that space. That's what it sounds like.

Aweng: I need Mother Love!

Alton: Yes! And speaking of love, I'm hoping that you have love and peace around you. Are you with your wife? Are you with your partner right now?

Aweng: We moved into Long Island. Yeah, that's probably been my biggest support system to be honest. Obviously, my family is all overseas and everything and... quarantined somewhere else, so my biggest supporter has just been my wife. It's been great though, having someone who's there unconditionally through everything while I'm doing shoots on FaceTime, while I'm doing exams.

Alton: That's important!

Aweng: We already survived everything, so that's basically where we're at. I feel like this is the perfect time. God makes no mistakes, so I feel like this is meant to be. We've just really grown a lot together the last few months because we've been stuck together. We haven't been able to go out. It's just been her and I. We don't go around any argument or disagreement. We have to go through it. It's been good for the relationship and building of each other, but it's been terrible for the individualism that should've come out of our first year of marriage. But, it's gone well.

"When you see yourself be brutalized so much, you become detached to the optimism behind life." —Aweng Ade-Chuol

Alton: Oh my gosh, I can only imagine. I'm sure this is also making you guys stronger and giving you a new perspective of love, unity and strengthening.

Aweng: It's been a war, but we've battled it together. Which is really great. I'm very grateful. The fact that I married someone who's so human and understands me so well — it's like if you can be stuck with someone for three months every single hour, then you're unstoppable. I have love around me.

Alton: That's right and I think that's what the world needs the most right now is love, compassion and unity, which is what I'm seeing with everything going on with the pandemic and with this spiritual war of racism and it's also during the time when we should be celebrating the LGBTQ community.

Aweng: It's Pride!

Alton: Yes, it's Pride right now. You are such a presentation of everything that's going on — the health, the beauty, the love, your black skin. Honestly, I'll repeat it again: it is an honor to be interviewing you now and hearing you sound so elated and strengthened.

Aweng: You make me want to cry! You're so sweet!

Alton: I'm just being transparent with you and you know what it is because it's not easy right now. I've had family members over here going through it, people passing away. Humanity is being lost!

Aweng: For me personally, when the pandemic started I'm like, "Okay, there's one thing now the world has to concentrate on." And then George Floyd happened, and then Breonna happened, and then the protests started, and then Yemen. We can not catch a break! The lynchings and the suicides, and the kidnapping of girls. I'm such a person who really is great at controlling her emotions, but as of late, Alton, I've been crying. I wake up and say, "Who wants to cry? Let's go." It's just been exhausting and on social media, the first thing I see someone died today. You don't even get a good morning.

Catsuit: Mugler, Hat: House of Malakai, Jewelry: Pebble London

Alton: Exactly! I was speaking to my mom about that. How it's just right there in front of your face. Boom, right there. If you're like me, I'm very empathetic so I easily attach everything that's going on around me to who I am and try to battle through it. It's not easy and it's been going on for years. Listen, Aweng, we've been Black since birth. This ain't nothing new.

Aweng: Forever!

Alton: We can go back all the way to Willie Lynch. We can go back to Emmett Till. I think that's what I hear you talking about the frustration with everything that's going on because if we were to dive into it and get into a topic, we would have to start and go way back and go so far.

Aweng: Let's go back to the Egyptian empire, let's start there. As a law student and a psychology student myself, when I think about everything legally and then think about it psychologically, the world is just messed up. That's just where my conclusion is. So let's wipe it all away and restart. That's where I go to and that's such a negative perspective to not see any good. But as of right now, I wake up every day and a brother is killed, a sister is kidnapped, my mother is killed. When you see yourself be brutalized so much, you become detached to the optimism behind life. I literally went into a dark hole. There is nothing good about this world. I want to quit acting and I'm dropping out of law school. I don't care because it's so tiring.

Alton: I want you to listen to me because I don't want you to give up on anything that you are putting your mind to right now. We need you more than anything. We need your voice, your acting, your face, your beauty on these walls, campaigns and television because of what you represent. The opposition, the enemy, is telling you to give up and telling you, "Put it down. Only focus on this." Aweng, you can do both. You have the equilibrium and the power instilled in you. God will not put anything on you that you can not bear. You have the power to do both.

Aweng: That's what I've been realizing the last two, three weeks. I sat back and said, "The world needs me, but guess who needs me more? Myself." It's just the times we're in — the reality is exhausting. We wake up every day and literally the past 102 days, someone has died every single day. It's crazy!

"I felt as if I was failing my people, but I'm 21. I'm still learning to walk; I'm still learning to crawl; I'm still learning life. Why do I feel so guilty for living, you know?" —Aweng Ade-Chuol

Alton: It's wild! And these are the ones that have been recorded on paper or on the phone. We don't even know the half.

Aweng: You don't! That's the thing. It's scary, but I started reading and writing again on a typewriter, I got a therapist, Before I felt guilty for being happy and feeling happiness with painting or drawing or sketching because why is Aweng happy when people are dying? I placed so much on myself. I'm not the queen, I'm not the goddamn President. I felt as if I was failing my people, but I'm 21. I'm still learning to walk; I'm still learning to crawl; I'm still learning life. Why do I feel so guilty for living, you know?

Alton: The mindset is important and I think it goes back to when you said you have to be Aweng for the world, but you have to be Aweng for yourself first. You've taken the time to mentally find counseling, to get a typewriter, to instill your mind in books and writing and all that. That's part of the work that everyone needs to do, because I don't know if you know how important this is — there are people dying physically out there, but there are even more people dying mentally and spiritually. Dead bodies walking who have no compassion, who have no humanity, who have no feelings towards what's going on out there. So hold on to that and continue creating because I've had to be reminded to continue doing that, too.

I'm feeling like you. I thought, "Damn, do I just stop everything? Do I give myself to this, to that? Do I sacrifice myself for this?" No one knows the answer, but one thing that we will keep doing is rising because what we're going through right now is healing. Now, healing is not always violins and champagne, feathers and water. It is chaos. It is pain. You have to go through it sometimes to see a better world, a better future. So I do have hope and I do have faith that me and you and all of us will witness the rise and unity amongst each other.

Aweng: I feel like it's a rebirth. I personally feel like my mindset has completely been destroyed and then reborn. I went from, "Aweng has this many goals" to "Aweng is the goal." These times have been a curse and a blessing to be honest because all we've had is time. No one is leaving the house or going anywhere. But how we use it is very important. The first month, I was doing nothing. Second month, I started getting back to myself and realizing, "Yes, the world has stopped moving but why do you have to?" The whole thing is mental, it's how you picture it, it's how you see it. But I have hope for the future.

Alton: When I think of you, I think of this time where I was walking to Miss Lily's in New York. I'm not going to lie, I was feeling kind of down and had a chip on my shoulder over something, I don't know, maybe someone didn't text me back or something. But I remember I got to Miss Lily's and you were there waiting for me with your blue eyes and your smile. I immediately lit up and it's really your spirit, Aweng. Please continue nurturing that. Please continue protecting that, because you don't even know what you do for other people.

Aweng: Thank you, Alty. I miss you. We never hang out anymore.

"One thing that we will keep doing is rising because what we're going through right now is healing." —Alton Mason

Alton: I know! I haven't seen you in so long! I haven't seen you since Milan. You know, I feel like sometimes I'm a little too hard on myself and I take too much on to myself. You know me. I be minding my business. I ride solo dolo, so I'm really to myself a lot. When there's times when you don't see me or you don't hear from me, I promise you it's not you. It is me over here in my world planning for this and trying to make that happen. I really love how you said it's time to be me for me.

Aweng: We're still young! We're so young! We forget how young we are being in this industry. It forces us to grow up so fast, move so fast and be so fast, but we're in our twenties — these are the times to make mistakes. These are the times to find and lose yourself. That's one thing that I learned from my mama. The twenties is 10 years to mess up and clean up. That's it. Because when those thirties and forties come, that's life right there. That's real life. That's when you start counting down to the day you're out. I'm never to my friends, "We don't hang out anymore!" because shit, life is hard. You don't know what happens to someone after a show or after a campaign shoot.

Being wise outside of covers and outside of magazines is something I had to learn because when someone wants to hang out with me or see me, I don't know how to say no. I'm the "yes man," which is terrible. I feel like every time I say no, I have to have a reason. But I'm learning that sometimes you don't need to explain why you want to do some things. You're human, you're in your twenties and you have friends that should understand that after this shoot, I have a life, I have a family and I have things outside of this shoot. I feel like when things open back up, I'm just going to be a different beast — different role, different rules. We're living in different times. We're not going to be going back to the same things. Everything has changed.

Alton: I will be right there with you beasting it down, ready for war because I feel like what's going on is a spiritual warfare; It's not a race thing. It's a spiritual warfare against all of us in opposition of evil and racism and supremacy and I think it's important that everybody, no matter what color you are, backs each other up and stands with unity and solidarity so we know we're not alone in exactly how we feel. One step we need to take towards that is having compassion and listening to understand and not listening to reply. That's where compassion lies. When you say I'm about to be another beast, I'm right here with you. I got your back.

Aweng: I feel like we're at a point in society where it's no longer a war against each other, it's literally a war of trying to find ourselves. I feel like everyone is at a point in time where I'm exhausted by everything but more so the fact that my spirit is exhausted. That's where I'm at personally. We just entered a new decade, but the way we entered it is not the way we're supposed to.

Alton: Or maybe it is! You never know. I'm here to see it through for the long haul. Know that you got me. Know that you can call me at 5 AM if you feel some type of way. We could talk. If I feel some type of way, know that I respect you and have the love to confide in you. Even if it's too much to bear, you can say, "Alton, this is too much. I can't take it right now." I'm just saying we need to have transparency for each other.

Aweng: It's vital. Even if you're feeling anxious, just tell me you're feeling anxious. I feel like I've grown so much in the past three months. I feel like I'm a 27-year-old trapped in a 21-year-old's body. It's just been interesting just to sit back and talk to your ancestors. I talked to my great-grandparents and asked them, "How were your twenties? Let me start about mine."

Alton: The twenties be hitting!

Catsuit: Mugler, Hat: House of Malakai, Jewelry: Pebble London

Aweng: These years are just really absurd. Obviously they lived in a different time and during a World War I situation, so they told me there was a war. We have a war right now, but I don't think it's the type of war like you had. We have a war where no one wants to throw any weapons, they just want to throw hate and words. It's the same trauma. It's the same death rate. My grandfather said, "Calm down, child. You're going to be fine."

Alton: Aweng you're so strong and your presence is so felt. You will be alright. If I know anything, I know you will overcome. You're going to go through it like me, but we're going to overcome.

Aweng: We're going to be fine. I've been talking to a lot of models to see where they're at with everything, and it's been interesting to see how everyone is maneuvering around the type of day we have right now.

Alton: What different perspectives have you heard?

Aweng: I called one the other day to see, "Hey hun, how's your spirit? How's your soul?" She's like, "Hi, I'm exhausted. I'm done. Girl, I can't." We were talking about how we're going to move forward as an industry in regards to fashion. Personally, I was just intrigued because I've been trapped in my head protesting. For me, there's something bigger than fashion going on right now because we're out here. She said was she going to have to go back to work soon in Europe. That's crazy because I don't think any show can take place for a while even if the protests stop or the virus stops. There is a conversation to be had as a table, as a society.

Alton: I agree.

Aweng: You can't wake up tomorrow and say the virus is over, the protesting is over and the laws have been passed. Let's go back. No! We already brought up some things we want to speak about, now let's speak about it on a wider, bigger table. It was interesting to see where her head was at. She said, "I'm kind of confused as to how we're going to move forward as fashion." Fashion is everywhere, fashion is in our every day, it's a part of the music world, and it runs lives.

Alton: It's just a whole world. Fashion, music, religion — it's all the same.

Aweng: It's everything! It's placed a big price tag on the world. As big as you are in fashion, when are we going to sit down at the table and bring everyone to the table? This time around, we can't be the same. We can't do the whole tokenism thing now.

Alton: To piggyback off of bringing everyone to the table, we need to bring the youth to the table because we are experiencing a different time than the people who have paved the way for us. We are seeing different things and it's all respect. We're so thankful always, but we need to be heard. They need to put the youth at the table making the decisions that can reflect the different futures.

"There are people dying physically out there, but there are even more people dying mentally and spiritually. Dead bodies walking who have no compassion, who have no humanity, who have no feelings towards what's going on." —Alton Mason

Aweng: I feel like everything is outdated. Virgil [Abloh] said it himself in an interview with Conde Nast I believe a week ago where he was like, "We need to bring the youth to the table." That is who needs to be at the table, not be brought, they need to be there and decide who else can join. Being in fashion, I'm ready to sit at the table and talk it out. It's not a matter of right or wrong, it's a matter of hearing each other out. Let's agree that mistakes have been done and let's move past it. Let's correct it.

Alton: This isn't the chance to put it under the rug and act like everything is okay now.

Aweng: How are you going to paint over blood with the same paint? That's how I see it. Thank God I didn't drop out of school. I graduate in a couple months. It's been a thing of really finding yourself, centering yourself and reminding yourself that you can't change the world, but if you change yourself and your mentality with how you see the world, then you'll be fine.

Alton: It's a lot of work and I want the entire community — not just Black people — I want them to match the energy. That's it. What are they doing? There's equality and there's equity. That's two different conversations. When we talk about bringing the future to the table, that's equity. When we talk about inclusivity — we love inclusivity. We love having people of different colors and sizes in these campaigns and ads and at the table at these businesses. But now let's talk about ownership and equity.

Aweng: All I have to say as Aweng, myself, I can only do so much. I also have to remember Rome was not built in a day. We've been here for two decades and 22 or 21 years. We haven't been able to do much. We haven't started working on it, so we're in the age where we're really seeing what life is really about and what's good and what's bad. I've been seeing it from my own perspective. Don't put too much pressure on yourself and if it's God's will, it will still get done.

Alton: I'll say it again. It's an honor to be interviewing you and to see where you and your spirit are. I hope you take this time to continue to heal and to continue to put God, you, and your family first.

Aweng: We got this, boo! I hope you are well and continue screaming and yelling for the masses!

For our 2020 Pride cover series, PAPER tapped photographer Bryan Huynh — and his team of digital art pros led by Rodolfo Hernandez and Willem Stapel — to reimagine our subjects, sculpt their bodies and transport them into otherworldly environments.

The experimental production began with a Zoom — connecting with each talent over video and talking them through the process of a face/ head scan iPhone app. Once the rough scans were exported, Huynh went back in to fine-tune facial details, humanizing the rudimentary imagery. Alongside subjects' features, Huynh's team sculpted digital bodies posing talent into positions that would match their unique environments, which were also digitally made by hand.

When it came to the fashion, stylist Matthew Josephs worked closely with our cover stars, as if they were on set, to ensure their individual aesthetics translated in pictures. Josephs sent the final looks to Huynh's team, who then built the clothing into their 3-D spaces.

Three months of dedicated hard work later under COVID-19 restrictions, PAPER is proud to present this year's Pride portfolio.

Photography: Bryan Huynh
Fashion editing: Matthew Josephs
3D Art lead: Willem Stapel
Art direction: Jonathan Conrad
Makeup: Raisa Flowers
3D Clothing design: David Willems
3D Face art: Patrick Blankenzee