Atong Atem awarded inaugural La Prairie Art Award

Ethiopian-born South Sudanese artist Atong Atem has been awarded the Art Gallery of NSW’s inaugural La Prairie Art Award for her self-portrait in five parts, A yellow dress, a bouquet (2022).

The award, comprised of a $50,000 acquisition and $30,000 worth of travel, is a new partnership between the gallery and the Swiss skincare company La Prairie in support of Australian women artists. As part of the award, Atem, who lives in Melbourne, will travel to Switzerland in June for a residency in Zurich and to attend the high-profile Art Basel art fair.

Atong Atem with the self-portrait that won the Art Gallery of NSW’s new La Prairie Art Award.

Atong Atem with the self-portrait that won the Art Gallery of NSW’s new La Prairie Art Award. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Atem, an artist for 10 years, says the ambitious work reflects how she felt when she was told she was the award’s recipient. “It’s hard to not see value in your own work when people you admire are seeing value in it,” she says. “[I was] feeling like … I have so much potential and I can realise this potential, and some of my limitations as an artist won’t always be there.”

In the self-portrait, Atem’s skin is painted in otherworldly violet, with turquoise eyeshadow and coral lips. Dressed in yellow, she is surrounded by colourful flowers. A magenta fabric backdrop is dotted with white, and her face, veiled in some images, is flecked with small dots to match. While the subject, costume and set are intertwined, Atem’s gaze remains stoically fixed on the viewer.

Atem’s artworks propose a surreal, retro-futuristic alternative to traditional portraiture and photography. Historically, ethnographic photography has been used to dehumanise people of the African diaspora, and the artist and writer is interested in responding to this by exploring migrant narratives and post-colonial practices in her work. A yellow dress, a bouquet references mid-20th-century African studio portraiture.

In pushing the limits of what a portrait can be while remaining true to the subject, Atem has in the past inverted sections of her subjects’ faces, added layers of natural materials collected on lockdown walks, and cut and woven her photographs.

Atong Atem’s A yellow dress, a bouquet 2022.

Atong Atem’s A yellow dress, a bouquet 2022. Credit:Atong Atem

As well as being exhibited locally and overseas, Atem’s growing CV includes the makeover of a building facade and a soon-to-be-published photo book (featuring an essay by the artist’s father, former South Sudanese deputy minister of information and journalist Atem Yaak Atem).

Atem was selected by the Art Gallery of NSW and La Prairie’s global board of directors as the award’s first recipient. The gallery’s deputy director and director of collections, Maud Page, said it was important to collect artists who signal the times. “It also has to signal to where the art gallery is looking, it has to be future-looking, and Atong’s work for us is future-looking in all of its elements.”

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