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Atong Atem wins $80K La Prairie Art Award

Melbourne-based South Sudan photographer, Atong Atem, has won the inaugural $80K La Prairie Art Award for Australian women for her pentaptych, A yellow dress.

A Yellow Dress by Atong Atem.

The La Prairie Art Award is a major new award by the Art Gallery of NSW. It consists of a $50K acquisition of the winning work and an additional 30K funding for an international residency in Zurich, Switzerland in June, coinciding with the Art Basel international art fair.

Atem’s pentaptych – five image panels that make a singular work – are vibrant self portraits with her face painted in bright makeup. She describes A yellow dress as ‘decidedly African, post-colonial aesthetic style’ through her use of colour and texture.

These vibrant portraits have become hallmarks of Atem’s work, which explores issues of race, migration and the African diaspora, as well as themes like historical African studio photography.

Her work is partly informed by her experience as a refugee, who arrived in Australia when she was six years old. Atem additionally draws inspiration from the likes of award-winning Melbourne-based Iranian photographer, Hoda Afshar.

‘To be overtly political but also totally accessible, and also [produce something] beautiful – that is an underrated skill,’ Atem said to The Guardian, referencing Afshar’s striking portrait of refugee Behrouz Boochani.

In her 10-year career, Atem has emerged as a leading Australian fine art photographer with works exhibited across Australia, as well as in shows in London, Milan, and New York. Winning the La Prairie Art Award is yet another step in Atem’s upward trajectory.

‘It’s hard to not see value in your own work when people you admire are seeing value in it,’ she said to The Sydney Morning Herald. ‘[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.’

The Art Gallery of NSW deputy director, Maud Page, a new acquisition ‘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’.

While studying art at the University of Sydney and RMIT, Atem discovered vintage ethnographic photos of Africans captured by anthropologists and colonial tourists. She applied water colours to the black-and-white photos, which she found ‘quite dehumanising depictions’, marking the formation of her bright colour palette style.

‘I was still just wanting to find an art history that I could comfortably fit into, and that I could resonate with, even though there were a lot of western artists whose works really inspired me,’ she says.

Realising the camera has been used as a ‘colonial weapon’, Atem decided to turn it back on herself and her community to create work that is celebratory and colourful.

‘Yes, it’s political, gendered and racial,’ she said to The Guardian. ‘But what isn’t?’

For such a big art prize, the La Prairie Art Award has a tiny online foot print. Inside Imaging was unable to find any online entry information via the Art Gallery of NSW website, or through various searches. That’s not to say the information isn’t out there somewhere, only that it’s not easy to locate. Although it looks like Vogue Australia has an involvement with the prize, along with Swiss luxury skincare brand, La Prairie, which sponsors Art Basel.

It’s an annual award open to artists of all styles.

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