South Sudanese-Australian artist Atong Atem has been awarded the inaugural MELT Portrait Prize for her studio portrait Akuot.
The MELT Portrait Prize was created to celebrate the diversity of the LGBTIQ community, and organisers received over 55 entries. To be eligible the portrait’s subject had to be a member of the global LGBTIQ community, but the artist didn’t necessarily have to identify as LGBTIQ. Atem also won the People’s Choice Award with over 700 votes via Facebook.
She is a Melbourne-based photographer whose work explores post-colonial visual cultures and ways of retelling personal narratives through photography. She said her winning portrait is about the tools that South Sudanese use to present themselves.
She said that winning the prize was overwhelming and validating.
“Especially as a young black student making quite political work about colonialism and blackness, having this kind of recognition has really encouraged me to unashamedly continue pursuing my work,” she said.
“It’s the importance of ownership over personal narrative as a way to fight pervasive colonial histories and to loudly proclaim our existence exactly how we want to.”
She said the medium of the studio portrait was very important to the South Sudanese.
“When we adopted studio photography, we took our identities and how we were visually presented into our own hands, loudly denying the ethnographic gaze,” she said.
“When we use this to present our sexualities, genders and personal lives, we take ownership over our identities and celebrate our diversity in a way that is truly ours.”
The award was judged by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk; Jason Smith, Curatorial Manager of Australian Art at Queensland Art Gallery; and Alexandra Winters, Curator and Exhibition Coordinator at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Atem was awarded a cash prize of $1000.