Mostafa Azimitabar

Artist Mostafa Azimitabar is pictured in front of his work, titled ‘Self-Portrait’, as the finalists’ work for the Archibald Prize is displayed in Sydney on 5 May 2022. Azimitabar was announced as a finalist for Australia’s most esteemed art prize, just over a year after he was released from one of the country’s notorious immigration hotels. Image: Saeed Khan / AFP

Iranian refugee uses a toothbrush to paint his way to Aussie art prize final

Mostafa Azimitabar, a refugee who was held for eight years in Australia’s immigration system is a finalist for the nation’s top art prize

Mostafa Azimitabar

Artist Mostafa Azimitabar is pictured in front of his work, titled ‘Self-Portrait’, as the finalists’ work for the Archibald Prize is displayed in Sydney on 5 May 2022. Azimitabar was announced as a finalist for Australia’s most esteemed art prize, just over a year after he was released from one of the country’s notorious immigration hotels. Image: Saeed Khan / AFP

A refugee held for eight years in Australia’s hardline immigration system earned a finalist spot in the nation’s top art prize on Thursday – for a self-portrait he painted with a toothbrush.

For artist Mostafa Azimitabar, a Kurd who fled persecution in Iran, the honour came just over a year after he was released from one of Australia’s notorious immigration hotels.

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HOW MOSTAFA AZIMITABAR STARTED PAINTING USING A TOOTHBRUSH

He told AFP a finalist berth for the Archibald – a portrait prize worth AUD$100 000 (R1.1 million), which has been awarded to some of Australia’s most esteemed artists – was “one of the best moments of my life”.

Azimitabar’s self-portrait was painted using a toothbrush, a technique he began experimenting with in 2014, soon after being put into one of Australia’s offshore immigration detention camps on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

“I asked one of the officers on Manus: ‘Can I have some paint?’… I would like to do some artwork because I don’t want to give up’,” he recalled.

After the officer said he might eat the paint to inflict self-harm, a frustrated Azimitabar returned to the room he shared with dozens of men.

On a table, he spotted a cup of coffee and a toothbrush.

“I don’t know what happened… that moment was so special for me. I grabbed the toothbrush and I put it in the coffee and I just dragged it (on some paper),” he said, describing this as his “moment of victory”.

Mostafa Azimitabar

MOSTAFA AZIMITABAR NAMES HIS PORTRAIT AFTER HIS GOVERNMENT ID NUMBER

Azimitabar’s self-portrait is entitled KNS088, the government identification number he was given during his eight years in detention.

He said painting was a reminder that he was a person, not a number.

“Art and painting helped me to be strong, to continue. Because when I paint, I don’t feel any trauma,” he said.

Mostafa Azimitabar

The UNHCR has repeatedly called on Australia to close its offshore camps, saying they “undermined the rights of those seeking safety and protection and significantly harmed their physical and mental health”.

But when he was moved to Australia’s mainland for medical care and placed in a detention hotel, Azimitabar found it difficult to make art.

Australia’s detention hotels, which made global headlines earlier this year when tennis star Novak Djokovic was held in one during his visa stoush, were “worse than Manus”, he said.

Then, on 21 January 2021, with little warning or explanation, he was released.

MOSTAFA AZIMITABAR IS NOW BUILDING A LIFE IN AUSTRALIA

Azimitabar was given a six-month bridging visa, which allowed him to work, but not study, access welfare or claim support for accommodation.

Since his release into the community, he has tried to build a life in Australia, working at a charity called ReLove.

“We provide free furniture to people (fleeing) domestic violence, or people who have been through a lot of trauma,” he said.

He has also painted, a lot, but found traditional tools didn’t inspire him as much as the toothbrush.

“This toothbrush is a very good friend of mine,” he said.

Mostafa Azimitabar

MOSTAFA AZIMITABAR WANTED TO CAPTURE LIFE AS A REFUGEE

Azimitabar wanted his self-portrait to capture the “suffering, sadness and strength” of life as a refugee.

He hoped that being named as an Archibald finalist will allow more Australians to understand that refugees are capable of anything.

“I believe that people look at me as a survivor,” he said.

Mostafa Azimitabar

The winner of this year’s Archibald Prize will be announced on 13 May.

Artist Mostafa Azimitabar speaks about his work, titled ‘Self-Portrait’, as the finalists’ work for the Archibald Prize is displayed in Sydney on 5 May 2022. Azimitabar was announced as a finalist for Australia’s most esteemed art prize, just over a year after he was released from one of the country’s notorious immigration hotels. Image: Saeed Khan / AFP

© Agence France-Presse/Maddison Connaughton