Artist Atong Atem was soaking up the Fijian heat with her close friend and “surrogate sister” Fuzz Ali when he told her that despite her great achievements, she hadn’t peaked.
Fast forward four years and Atem is standing centre stage at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), basking in glory having just been named the inaugural recipient of the prestigious La Prairie Art Award.
“I am enormously proud to win an award dedicated to contemporary Australian women artists, especially knowing how many remarkable women artists there are working in Australia today,” Atem says. “I am thrilled to have this major work acquired by the Art Gallery and I would like to thank La Prairie for the opportunity to create new avenues for my career internationally.”
Years in the making, La Prairie’s new initiative champions women artists in Australia by supporting the development or expansion of a new body of work.
Recognised for her original and vibrant photographic portraits which are a nod to science fiction, Atem sets the bar high as the first ever recipient of the A$80,000 art prize. The accolade includes the AGNSW permanently acquiring her work, a funded international residency at the home of La Prairie in Zurich, Switzerland and the opportunity to attend Art Basel as a VIP guest of the Swiss brand.
“The only way we can be truthful and honest about the world we live in is to accept and embrace the inherent diversity of the world in which we live.” – Atong Atem
The Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese artist and writer is synonymous with ambitiously crafted photographic portraits that celebrate her subjects, all the while making people really feel.
Atem delves deep to explore migrant stories and post-colonial histories of the African diaspora to examine lines of community and connection.
Her latest piece, A yellow dress, a bouquet 2022 was unveiled at a black-tie celebratory dinner at the gallery. The striking sequential self-portrait features five photographs of Atem draped in a canary yellow dress armed with a floral bouquet and her face starkly painted blue with turquoise eyelids and rouge lips. And just as her beaming smile and charming character draw in people in person, the captivating gaze captured in the portraits takes hold, prompting viewers to remember what it means to be a person on this Earth.
Alluding to classical Western painting traditions through her postures, this blends with the hyper-stylised costumes and make-up – an ornamentation that doubles as a political statement. For the young artist, the face paint represents aesthetic alienation and a reaction against the idealisation of whiteness.
“A big part of my existence as an artist is paying homage to a history I come from, a culture I come from, and a history I so desperately try to participate in,” Atem shared during the evening. “And looking at my parents on this night makes me think perhaps I don’t have to work so hard, perhaps I am a part of this history I hold so dear to me.
“I’m a person who spends a lot of energy and effort trying to get to the truth of what it means to be a person in the world in general.
“I often talk about being a politicised person in a politicised body, and I spent a lot of time in my early years trying desperately to escape that and find my own personal identity outside of the identities I hold. Through my parents and through looking at the work they’ve done, to bring me to a space where I can be an artist and not worry about survival, I think I’ve always been myself and I reflect them.”
Visibly touched by their daughter’s inspirational achievements, Atem credits her parents to who she is, and who she has become.
Despite being 2022, women artists continue to be paid less for their work than men. But through inspiring initiatives like the La Prairie Art Award, it forges a path to creating more equality in the art world, as well as opening doors to new opportunities.
“Unveiling Atem’s work was like a breath of fresh air and the sunshine we all needed,” said Rosi Fernandez, La Prairie Australia and New Zealand Managing Director. “The launch of the La Prairie Art Award is an organic elevation of our partnership with the AGNSW, and it focuses on empowering women, championing women living Australian artists through the development or expansion of a new body of work, and the acquisition at the gallery permanently – it’s a way we can play our part in supporting gender parity in the arts.”
The award, which is the first of its kind for the Swiss maison, will help Atem capture the eyes of the world, a space where she allows herself to exist without having to change her truly unique and captivating art style.
“I hope that me, my presence, my existence, my acknowledgement of things that are true to me, gives you all permission to seek people outside of the norm, outside of the usual representation and recognise that the only way we can be truthful and honest about the world we live in is to accept and embrace the inherent diversity of the world in which we live,” Atem said.
While the La Prairie Art Award is a mighty achievement that will propel Atem onto a global stage, her “surrogate sister” believes there’s so much more to come from her, and she’s still yet to peak.