Unless you’re an art aficionado, Atong Atem may just be the most fascinating (and multi-faceted) woman you’ve never heard of. Just who is she? Artist, writer, photographer. Daughter, sister, fiancé. Ethiopian, South Sudanese, migrant, Australian citizen. Bold, complex colour aficionado, at work and at play. Not to mention major body moisturiser enthusiast and makeup sample obsessive. The recent announcement of Atong as the inaugural winner of the La Prairie Art Award, which saw her work A yellow dress, a bouquet acquired by none other than the Art Gallery of New South Wales, will surely be the beginning of the end of non-art-world-anonymity for such a dynamo. A vision at the award ceremony in a swirling kaleidoscope of a Romance Was Born dress, we knew we had to get the thoughts on beauty of someone who professionally – and, we came to find, personally – celebrates life in all of its vivid colours. After a whirlwind few weeks of press and events, we spoke with her the day after her thirty-first birthday. She had celebrated by taking a trip to the zoo (“I used to think they were so problematic, but now I know their role in conservation can be pretty amazing”) as part of an ongoing quest to celebrate what baby Atong would want to do if she was a grown up – think 13 Going On 30 come to life. See? Kooky, funny, thoughtful. Nouns and adjectives may not do her justice, but, rest assured, her own words do.

One of the five images that constitues Atong’s award-winning work, ‘A yellow dress, a bouquet’

“My interest in beauty comes from recognising how limited a lot of society’s perceptions are as to what can or can’t be considered beautiful.

As an African migrant who came to Australia as a child, how I saw myself was influenced by other people’s perceptions of me, of my skin, and of my features. In the nineties, there was not a lot of representation of dark-skinned women. We certainly weren’t celebrated or showcased.


Before the world breaks us, our personal ideals and standards of beauty are fascinating.

As a child, I was attracted to the most bizarre things that I saw in cartoons and anime, and then as a teen, I was heavily influenced by sci fi. The amazing aliens in Star Wars and Star Trek showed me that what was fantastical was beautiful. As we age into puberty and want to be considered attractive (or at least attractive by Dolly magazine standards), our vision of beauty gets dulled down. It becomes much more about putting on an acceptable costume, rather than revelling in what we might actually consider beautiful.

I felt that I had a strong understanding of my own beauty and relationship to it, but that didn’t match with what society was telling me was beautiful. Once I reached adulthood, I saw how disconnected I was, both from how I felt about myself as a child, and from how wonderful that child presumed she would feel when she grew up. Now, I think it’s all kind of bullshit! So I put a lot of energy and effort into celebrating what eight-year-old me would want to do if she had the resources of 31-year-old me.

Atong as a child, the year her family arrived in Australia
Image: Instagram @atongatem

It’s never a simple question to consider where we are all ‘from’, is it? Especially as a migrant.

I celebrate being South Sudanese, and I also feel like an Australian citizen, as I have been here longer than I have anywhere else. I hesitate to say I ‘am Australian’ though, as I recognise that inherent colonialism, and don’t want to attach to that.

Considering how I might look and feel my most beautiful has been a study in having to figure shit out for myself. What’s available has, until fairly recently, been so limited, and what has been available didn’t work. People like myself have had to become (makeup) artists – not by choice – so now that I have the skills, I try to keep pushing myself. For instance, the colour blue can be used on every part of your face – it doesn’t have to be limited to eyeshadow. I’m glad we have accepted in 2022 that makeup doesn’t have to look ‘natural’. Why should the beautification of ourselves end there?

Choosing whether or how to paint your face exists on a spectrum. Everyone’s version of too much and not enough is quite different.

Day to day, depending on where I am and who I am with, I can leave the house feeling wonderful, and then slip into feeling uncomfortable, and like I’m wearing too much. It’s very personal. In my early twenties, I spent time around a lot of hippies, performers and artists who were all super creative. I learned from them that I didn’t really need or want to create a distinction between being ‘presentable to the world’, and putting on green face paint. It was important for me in those foundational years to experience that, having just coming out of high school surrounded by people who would wake up and do a full face of makeup; a different type of costume. It just goes to show that there’s such variety in what we all like, and in our comfort in wearing that out in the world. When we’re younger, we often want to protect ourselves, to fit in, to not be made fun of, and we don’t want too much attention.


Now, I gravitate towards what makes me feel good.

Sometimes that means a lot of makeup, putting bright things in my hair and wearing orange stockings for a trip to the supermarket. Other days, I do not feel comfortable being seen at all and wear subtle, minimal clothes, like a hoodie, and no makeup. Rather than figuring out what feels appropriate to others out there, I focus on what will make me feel my best, whether it’s makeup or fashion.

In my twenties, there was a period of time where I struggled with the idea of a professional bra fitting. So I just refused to engage, and was in the wrong bra for ages. I eventually got through that and went and got myself fitted; I was finally comfortable, and my bras did what they should. I started buying matching sets of sexy lingerie, and wearing them all the time, even with the most basic clothes on top. Sometimes the smallest, most personal things can make you feel incredible. It’s not necessarily about other people seeing it (though it can be!) Beauty and empowerment doesn’t need to be external, and if it is, it can be on your own terms. Now I’m in my thirties, though, I feel best when I am comfortable. What even are low-waisted undies?

I learned about haircare from my mum. Hair for African women is such a thing. It’s really intimate stuff.

She taught me how to braid by doing it for me. I’d sit right in front of her, and often fall asleep halfway through, leaning against her legs. So it’s physically intimate, and then because the braiding takes hours, and is a true labour of love, it’s emotionally intimate, too. I could literally feel and see the effort she was making for me. She would braid my hair in cornrows, so if one was not as straight as the others, she would undo it and completely redo it. For us, it’s not just about our hair being done, but also about being beautiful. My hair is intertwined with my mum, with our community, and to all these women who care for each other. I was eight when my sister was born, as soon as she had enough hair, I braided it for her (I used a doll to practise on first!)

Atong (in polka dots) with her mother and siblings

My mum, my sister and I did a Vogue photo shoot together to announce my art prize, which was amazing. We are three black women who have a migrant relationship to Australia, and when we came here we had to figure everything out from scratch.

It’s been trial and error with our relationship to beauty here, compared to what was it like for Mum in Sudan and South Sudan. Back in the day when we didn’t have good products here, she used black lip liner for everything. Brows, lips… she was so creative, and figured out ways to make it work for her. As a child, I didn’t feel like ‘oh, X is what’s beautiful, and I’m not’, because I looked like her, and I knew she was a goddess. I knew this goddess had dark skin, so mine must be amazing, too.

No one is the pinnacle of perfection, and yet we spend time sort of flattening ourselves so that we all look vaguely like one narrow ‘standard’. We see the exact same sort of face happening everywhere, now. Sure, it’s beautiful, but you could have elevated and celebrated your own version of beautiful. Or maybe even engage with the idea that being beautiful doesn’t mean shit!

The only brand I grew up knowing always had products to suit my skin tone is Illamasqua. I don’t even know where to find it now. [Ed. note – looks like in Australia you’ll only find it online.]

I now know MAC would have had me covered, but I never got into it as it felt too expensive. Which is funny, as it’s more affordable than Illamasqua!  I think I maybe also felt like I wasn’t skilled enough for MAC? Even though I probably would have been, because we’d had to teach ourselves to be so creative with makeup when we had so little available to us. Not to be bougie bitch, but for the first time in my life I have found a foundation that exactly matches my skin tone, and it just happens to be Gucci. Specifically, their Natural Finish Fluid Foundation.

I like to use a little bit of everything from all sorts of brands, and tend to try new things all the time. I love travel sizes for that reason, or little samples. I’d never ask for them if I wasn’t actually buying something, but if I do buy something in store I will ask if I can have a sample of something new if it has caught my eye. Sometimes I realise a product I really love I have never actually bought a full size version of, haha. I love to give new things a whirl, and beauty products are often so expensive, so having the option to buy little sizes to try something out is so great. I don’t need fragrance samples, though. My signature fragrance is Le Labo Thé Matcha 26, and that I buy in full-size!

With fellow artist and friend Fuzz Ali, both looking seriously glam wearing Camilla

I love skincare. I used to have so many amazing products, but then I got cystic hormonal acne during the pandemic.

I didn’t even know what was going on, but my partner knew because he’d had it when he was younger. I went to see a derm, who suggested I go onto Roaccutane. We were basically in lockdown, so I thought well, no one is going to see my face, so now seems a good time to try it in case I react badly. I was happy to do it if it worked, and it did. I still have acne, but now it’s manageable.

One of the perks of winning this award is now I can use all La Prairie, all the time. I could never afford it otherwise!

I still keep other products in my routine, though. I love the Medik8 Surface Radiance Cleanse. I am hugely into AHAs and BHAs, especially from Paula’s Choice – I only recently learned about what acids can do for your skin. I just get small size bottles when I feel like I can’t afford the big ones, and they still last for ages.  Also, when you order online they send you lots of extras, which is amazing. Their classic Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, is so good, and it’s huge, so it lasts forever. I like the NeoStrata Resurface Glycolic Renewal Smoothing Lotion for the face and body, too. And Paula’s Choice make a good one just for the body, the Weightless Body Treatment with 2% BHA.

With serums, I like to mix it up. I do use The Ordinary, and often go for The Buffet because I can’t decide what I want and it seems to have everything in it. I don’t wear makeup that often, but when I do, I use The Ordinary Squalene Cleanser to remove it, then the Medik8 one for my second cleanse. I have a silk cloth that was something like $2.80 from Daiso, which I like to use with the oil cleanser, to give me a little bit of gentle physical exfoliation at the same time. I use the Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum at night. I usually follow up with CeraVe Daily Moisturising Lotion, but lately I have been using the La Prarie Skin Caviar Luxe Cream. It is the most beautiful little object, and the cream itself is just gorgeous.

With weaver Pamela Joyce, who turned one of Atong’s pieces into the tapestry hanging behind them as part of an Australian Tapestry Workshop initiative.
In the Romance Was Born dress that commanded our attention

I really enjoy going to derms and getting my skin done, having extractions and peels. I have such an interest in skincare for its ability to help get my skin as healthy as can possibly be. And it’s also very fun!

Thinking back to my mum and my upbringing, everyone was always moisturising, and everyone does an elaborate skincare routine, so I guess my coming to love it so much was inevitable. Mum probably didn’t have a seven step routine, but every night and morning she took the time to do her skincare and hair care. It’s lovely that now, when I get to use amazing new products and technology, it feels like an extension of my culture. Taking care of my face and my body just makes me feel really good. I mean, I feel so nice when I’m moisturised! I usually do a full body moisturising session right out of the shower at night, just before bed. Once I come out of the bathroom, no one can touch me – I am slippery and I am perfection.”

Interview and story by Zoe Briggs. Images of Atong in green blazer by Felicity Jenkins for the Art Gallery of NSW (supplied). Images of Atong in peach dress by Kristoffer Paulsen (supplied). Other imagery from Instagram @atongatem. With thanks to La Prairie.

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