Self-portrait series wins inaugural La Prairie Art Award

The winner of the inaugural La Prairie Art Award is Melbourne-based artist Atong Atem. Theacquisitive award champions the work of Australian women artists and is presented by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney and La Prairie, a Swiss luxury skincare house.

© Atong Atem. A yellow dress, a bouquet 2022. Art Gallery of New South Wales, La Prairie Art Award 2022.
© Atong Atem. A yellow dress, a bouquet 2022. Art Gallery of New South Wales, La Prairie Art Award 2022.

The new partnership supports Australian women artists through the development or expansion of a new body of work, with the aim of supporting and nurturing the recipient's practice as well as raise their international profile.

Atem is an Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese artist and writer who works predominantly in photography, often using portraiture to explore migrant stories and post-colonial histories of the African diaspora and examine lines of community and connection. She was awarded for her originality and ambitiously crafted and vibrant photographic portraits that celebrate their subjects. As part of her prize, she will receive an international artist residency and also travel to Zurich, Switzerland and attend the Art Basel international art fair as a VIP guest of the Swiss luxury house.  

A yellow dress, a bouquet 2022 is a sequential self-portrait consisting of five photographs in which Atem appears in close-up, her face brightly painted. In this work, she gestures towards the tropes of classical western paintings traditions, through the postures she assumes and the symmetry of the sequence, while maintaining what she refers to as a “decidedly African, postcolonial aesthetic style” through an emphatic use of colour and texture. 

On receiving the La Prairie Art Award, Atem said, “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. 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.”   

Art Gallery of NSW senior curator of Australian contemporary art Isobel Parker Philip said, “In A yellow dress, a bouquet, Atem extends her ongoing preoccupation with self-portraiture and builds on the stylistic mannerisms of her early Studio Series from 2015 that in part responded to the history of mid-twentieth century African studio portraiture, specifically the work of Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta.

“Through her hyper-stylised costumes and make-up, Atem draws attention to the staging inherent to the studio scene, but such ornamentation also carries political weight. For Atem, the face-paint is a symbol of aesthetic alienation and a reaction against the idealisation of whiteness.”

The Art Gallery of NSW will display the La Prairie Art Award 2022 winning works until Sunday 22 May 2022.

About the artist

Atong Atem (1991) is an Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese artist and writer based in Naarm/Melbourne who works mainly with photography. She often uses portraiture to explore migrant stories and postcolonial histories of the African diaspora.

Atem explores concepts of home and identity through a critical and sentimental lens and references the works of photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita and science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler as tools for navigating liminal spaces.

Atem has exhibited her work across Australia, including National Gallery of Victoria, MUMA Monash, Gertrude Contemporary, Australian Center for Contemporary Art and Internationally at Red Hook Labs in New York, Vogue Fashion Fair in Milan and Unseen Amsterdam art fair.


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