A new $80,000 art prize for Australian women has been awarded to a former refugee whose work – bursting with color – is a response to colonial oppression.
Atong Atem’s vivid photographic portraits won him the top La Prairie Art Prize, which will see the Art Gallery of New South Wales spend $50,000 to acquire the artist’s work and fund a residency $30,000 donation to Zurich in June, for Atem to attend the Art Basel international arts fair.
Atem is a South Sudanese artist based in Melbourne who came to Australia as a refugee at the age of six.
She spent her formative years studying art history and coming to terms with a European artistic hegemony that portrayed people of color in a prejudicial and unrealistic form.
Atem’s cheerful and subversive self-portraits use raging cosmetic and costume devices to pack a visually pleasing – and intellectually uncomfortable – punch.
Atem is partly inspired by photographer Hoda Afshar, whose compelling 2018 portrait of Iranian Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani turned him into a powerful symbol of Australian government asylum seeker policy.
“Be openly political but also totally accessible, and also [produce something] beautiful – it’s an underrated skill,” says Atem.
Arguably Atem’s most recognizable work to date – Saba and Gabby, commissioned for Melbourne’s Immigration Museum in 2020 – seems to give a wry nod to the ultra-kitsch 1950s artist and 1960 Vladimir Tretchikoff, whose portrait of Chinese Girl adorned the living room walls of millions of white bourgeois homes in the mid-20th century, exploiting the exoticism of “Oriental” and African sensuality.
Atem’s own introduction to how the white world viewed his “individual blackness” was unearthed through the discovery of black-and-white ethnographic photographs taken by colonial tourists and anthropologists.
As an art student at the University of Sydney and later at RMIT, she responded to unfamiliar images by applying watercolors to the originals.
“I just wanted to find an art history that I could comfortably fit into and resonate with, even though there were a lot of Western artists whose works really inspired me,” she says. .
“But the first images I encountered were quite dehumanizing depictions.”
It was then that Atem understood that the camera was a colonial weapon that she could turn against her opponent.
“That’s where it all started for me,” she says.
Turning the lens back on herself and her community – which has long been the subject of right-wing racism and political hysteria – Atem has claimed her position as a black female artist in Australia.
“Yes, it’s political, gendered and racial,” she says. “But what isn’t?
Atem’s work has been exhibited at Messum Gallery in London, Red Hook Labs in New York, Vogue Fashion Fair in Milan and Unseen Amsterdam Art Fair.