Atong Atem at photo basel

Atong Atem's meticulously and joyously crafted photographs have earned her recognition and critical acclaim across the Australian art world – including, most recently, the inaugural La Prairie Art Award for her body of work "A yellow dress, a bouquet," 2022. Now, Atem heads to photo basel with MARS Gallery, the first gallery to exhibit at the Swiss art fair.

Atem told the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in an interview after she was awarded the La Prairie Art Award, that her photographic practice is also a deeply painterly one: it encompasses the craft and sensuality of the costuming and mis-en-scene of her stylised studio set-ups. In her instantly recognisable images – each nonetheless rippling with their own personality, and idiosyncrasy – subjects gaze into the lens with painted faces amidst fields of fabric, beads, veiling, and flowers. Trained as a painter, Atem’s work takes “decoration” seriously as a strategy for exploring cultural and personal identity, femininity, decolonial image-making, and even friendship. Exuding glamour and luxury, but also senses of the homemade and even the kitsch, these complex images ask for longer and deeper looking than their “iconicity” might suggest.

Atem’s work for photo basel, like many of the celebrated images in her oeuvre more broadly, calls upon histories of West African studio photography. In 2019, Atem told Nur Shkembi for Artist Profile that “it’s really interesting to me that the first depictions of black people seen by outsiders and even by other black folks were ones that framed black bodies in such a potent way that socially those frames still exist today. More than that though, I’m interested in the moment in history when black people took the camera and chose to photograph ourselves for ourselves. Photographers like Malick Sidibe, Seiydou Keita, Philip Kwame Apagya have really influenced the way I think about image making and the power of photography.” In works like Kohl and Veil, 2022, and Eva in Green 2, 2022, for example, the self-crafting that takes place in the studio results in images that feel more honest, more reflective of their subjects’ agency, and more self-determined for their hyper-stylisation.

Part of the La Prairie Art Award was an international residency, which Atem is taking in Switzerland, alongside the opportunity to show at photo basel. With the support of MARS Gallery, Atem is showing pieces from three bodies of work at the fair: Ego, 2019, Immigration Museum, 2019, and Banksia, 2021. These include both photographic and video works. With MARS attending as the first and only Australian gallery at photo basel, Director Andy Dinan comments that “there is a sense of urgency that resonates from Atem’s work, conversations and ideas around identity, place and belonging that her art prompts are pertinent both within Australian and global contexts. I’m also excited by what this means for other emerging artists living in Australia.” With both the international exhibition opportunity and the residency underway, Atem and artists like her – whether they be women artists, artists of South Sudanese heritage in Australia, younger artists, or simply great artists – can look forward, across expanding horizons, with high hopes. 

Atong Atem, presented by MARS Gallery at photo basel
14 – 19 July 2022
Volkshaus Basel, Switzerland  

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