Atong Atem — Decolonial Sci-Fi and the power of portraiture

Honi sits down with the inaugural winner of the La Prairie Art Award, Atong Atem.

Atong Atem and her work 'A Yellow dress, a bouquet' at AGNSW. Photography by Thomas Sargeant.

Afro-futurism and colonial histories; ethnographic frames and Sci-Fi words — these are the prevalent themes which drive and underpin the works of Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese Melbourne based artist, Atong Atem.

Last Tuesday at The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Atem was awarded the inaugural La Prairie Award: a $50,000 acquisitional prize, with the opportunity to attend Art Basel in Switzerland, valued at $30,000.

The award winning artwork, A yellow dress, a bouquet (2022), is a sequential series of five self-portraits that turns ethnographic photography and modern notions of self-portraiture on their head.  

Confronting Western ideals of photographic portraiture, and maintaining a strong focus on community and connection to culture, Atem takes a decolonial approach to her photography. Stating  that she is “always thinking about the ethics” behind it, particularly in her self portraiture, wherein the relationship between the sitter and the photographer holds a long history of power-imbalance and colonial violence. 

Working in pigment print photographs, Atem directs, shoots, and models for her photography; creating new worlds and alternate futures through vivacious velveteen make-up and thoughtfully crafted set-design.

Though her photography is about life, and attempts to dissect the aggregation of socio-political challenges of our time, it is also informed by her relation to futuristic technologies and history. In order to wrestle with these  problems of the past, present, and future, Atem says that she gives herself  “permission to create worlds” with an inherent mythology and Sci-Fi twist embedded in that creation.

Upon receiving the award at the podium, Atem welcomed us to the “presentation of [her] stand-up career” and, after many laughs, described receiving the award and its recognition of her work as a “huge honour and a pleasure”. 

Awarded jointly by AGNSW and the award’s sponsor, Swiss luxury skincare house La Prairie, the award seeks to champion Australian women artists and their works. AGNSW Director, Michael Brand, said that the award will “support the ambitions of women artists and enable their artistic practice to grow in new directions” with the goal of developing a growing body of work. 

At Tuesday’s award ceremony the Director of La Prairie for Australia and New Zealand, Rosi Fernandez, expressed that, through the La Prairie Award, they can “play [their] part in supporting gender parity in the arts.” The acquisitive award is the first of its kind, and represents the “organic elevation of [the] partnership” between La Prairie and AGNSW; notably giving the winning artist the opportunity to increase their international profile.   


A Yellow dress, a bouquet proudly defies the gallery-space, and the expectant notions of viewers. Bold blocks of colour cut into each other through the backdrop to the costume and makeup, each skilfully and symphonically aligned. 

Through each sequential self-portrait, Atem makes stern eye contact with the lens — by extension, staring down and engaging with every viewer of the work. Swathed in folds of a golden-yellow fabric, her face exists in an alternate universe of lilac-blue tonalities, a world in which “a blue face and turquoise garage-door eyeshadow is an ideal beauty standard”. 

Working to not only subvert, but transcend, Western normative standards of aesthetics, Atem creates a vibrant world which is both “real and science fiction — it is a total reflection of the world that [she lives] in today.”

This end is achieved through a colour palette of dark lilac, turquoise, yellow and maroon: four colours which rarely coexist in our natural, material world, however exist harmoniously within Atem’s alternate one. Fostering a sense of disjointed reality, a crucial twist in perspective that is indicative of a world that is not entirely our own, but a direct product of it. 

Atem cites African studio photography as a major influence on her work, particularly evident in her work’s costume and setting. Existing as a confluence of African and Australian influences, the work beams with Afrofuturist colouring while gumleaf props are interwoven in the bouquet.

Atem’s reclamation of photography through self-portraiture stands in stark contrast to the traditionally ethnographic influences which she cites. Though the artistic influence of African studio photography  shines clear, with Atem saying that her family’s studio photographs “weren’t art to me, they were just my aunties and my cousins” — a source from which she draws inspiration.

‘Ethnographic photography’ refers to a genre of portraiture practised by colonial photographers who sought to document the local populations of areas they colonised.


Honi sat down with Atem and discussed her philosophy, artistic practice, and political goals in the institution of art — and beyond. 

But first, Atem received a startling notification on her phone:

Atem: Oh, great. I’m getting my wisdom teeth out on Wednesday — which is the day I land. 

Honi: Oh, oh no! 

A: It’s alright, it’s good, it’s good, it means I have a built-in excuse to do nothing. 

H: Can you get jet-lagged going from Sydney to Melbourne? 

A: It can happen if you are a bit stressed out, because I felt jet-lagged when I arrived. 

H: Understandable, something just happens when you step on a plane. 

A: Yeah, it’s like when you go into the cinema. 

H: Yes and you come out and feel like there’s something off, like you’ve teleported. 

A: Yes! It’s always like that. 

H: You spoke earlier about the Sci-Fi influences on your work, can you tell us about the world you’ve created in A yellow dress, a bouquet and the ways it draws on your own experiences? 

A: I suppose the Sci-Fi world I have created in my work is an amalgamation of everything in pop culture and media that I have loved. I’ve always been drawn to Sci-Fi and fantasy, because it’s a space where impossible worlds become reality; it’s a space where you can be ahistorical, but it always is a reflection of the history and the politics of the real world. 

I find it quite fascinating, the choices from people who make science fiction and fantasy worlds are quite intriguing, because a lot of the time, it’s a replication of the politics of the real world. And you don’t have to do that. You can literally do whatever you want. 

My worlds are ones that are informed by aesthetics, and they’re not apolitical because nothing is apolitical, but it’s a politics of aesthetics.

H: You’ve mentioned that your work is informed by studio photography and family photographs, as well as ethnographic and postmodern genres of photography. Given these themes, how do you see your personal politics reflected in the work?

A: I suppose, like at the core of it, it is about choices. I think acknowledging that politics, someone else, or something else, has informed our choice: our choice to dress, how we do dress or don’t dress, or how we speak or don’t speak, when we speak and don’t speak. 

Every single thing that we do, we’re basically submerged and suspended in a thick air of politics and history that we can’t escape, but we can acknowledge it, and we can be informed by that realisation. 

That’s where my work exists. It’s sort of in the jelly, of the politics and the history that has come before and exists around me. I don’t know how to word this, but essentially in my whole time living in this country, I’ve never been afforded the luxury of being seen as an apolitical person or an apolitical body. 

From a very, very young age, I’ve had to reckon with what it means to be the person that I am. And I think everybody should do that, but not everybody’s inundated with that reality from a young age. So my work is basically informed by a five year old, a six year old, a 10, 15, 20 year old person who can’t escape the world around her — and has the power to create a new one. And that’s the space that my work exists in politically. 

H: Fantastic, absolutely. It reflects the kind of inherent politicisation of Blackness, of yourself. 

Yeah, absolutely. That’s where my interest in photography comes from. The history of photography is one that exists, or was created, as an attempt to present and record factual things, like truth. But again, the people that were taking those ‘truthful’ photographs, were making choices about what was in the frame, what wasn’t in the frame, and how the people in the frame were depicted: whether they were smiling, whether their faces were even visible, whether they were given individual identities outside of their race or their culture. And I think my work is trying to do the exact opposite.

I’m trying to make you aware of the fact that everything is a choice, and it’s so evident in the fact that you very rarely see just my skin. I’m making a conscious choice to present my skin in a particular way and making a conscious choice there’s a background that I’ve chosen. Everything is informed by some choice that I’ve made, as a way of reminding people that there is nothing inherently truthful about a photograph.

H: I’d love to follow up on what you’re saying about ethnographic photography. You’ve discussed the ways in which it frames blackness in a way that still informs conceptions today — what kind of new frame do you see yourself creating?

I don’t think I’m creating a new frame at all; and I think that’s a big, big part of my constant reference to the history that I’m informed by. 

It’s a preexisting history of reframing, rethinking, and anti-colonial thinking, that I’m trying to attach myself to. I suppose it releases me of the pressure of existing within a Western canon of art history, that makes me feel like I have to start ‘the new thing’. I don’t actually have to do that. What I can do is divert people’s attention to an already existing, but historically sidelined, way of thinking about images and image-making, that I already put into. And so many people already fit into it. 

It’s inherently African in that it was informed by African politics and African responses to colonialism; but, in the same way, the texts that were taught in high school and the images and the artists that we’re taught to relate to — I’m supposed to be able to relate to Picasso, or whoever, regardless of the fact that we’re so not the same. But there’s an expectation that people from within the Western canon are inherently relatable. 

I feel like my mission, if there is a mission, or my act as an artist, is: celebrating, acknowledging, showcasing, and participating in a different canon of art history that has existed long before me. Long before colonialism, long before the photograph and the camera existed, and will continue to exist. 

That is much more earnest and honest and truthful and meaningful, in my humble opinion. 

H: On that same thread of individuals feeling as though they don’t fit in the canon, would you have a particular message for young people and young artists who don’t necessarily feel accepted into the gallery-space, or into these institutions that are not made for them? 

A:  I’m quote-unquote ‘young’ and an emerging artist as well. I think that for me, despite all these things that I’ve done, that I’m really proud of, that feeling has not gone away. 

I don’t think that it’s helpful to try to get rid of that feeling of alienation or otherness. I think it’s really helpful to remind yourself that there are mechanisms in place to make most of us feel that way — and those mechanisms are colonial, and they work to make certain spaces exclusive in order for certain people in positions of power to feel like their power is warranted, and it’s earned. 

I think a much more useful thing to say, or to acknowledge, is ‘I’m not welcome or comfortable in these spaces and I want access to those spaces’. But, what do you actually want? Once you have the access, then what? Is it that you want to showcase your work? Is it that you want to speak about things that you feel you can’t speak about? Is it that you want to make work that is, you know, not necessarily celebrated currently? What other ways can you do that? 

For me, the reason that I’m able to have access to these spaces, that I historically and personally have not felt comfortable or accepted into, is because I sought to do what I wanted to do outside of those spaces with communities that made me feel welcome. 

I think it’s easier said than done, but finding spaces that make us feel whole leads to us feeling much more comfortable taking over the spaces that want to erase us.

At the end of the day, the onus is on people in positions of power to acknowledge us. This weird thing happens where as soon as we ignore them —the people in positions of power — as soon as we say, actually we don’t want what you want, they’re like “Wait!”

Let’s figure out how to make community at the centre of our power and our strength. I guess it’s rich coming for me having just received this amazing award from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but the only way I was able to make work that felt really powerful and true was when I started to just figure out what the fuck I wanted to do.