Painting with coffee and acrylic on canvas, Mostafa Azimitabar used a toothbrush to complete his award-winning self-portrait, after his release from Australia’s immigration detention system in 2021. The Iranian Kurdish artist is a 2022 finalist for the Archibald prize for portraiture, seen as the most prestigious portraiture prize in Australia.
A toothbrush and coffee had been the only materials available to Azimitabar in detention. Earthy colours weep down the page, giving way to a piercing look of determination in the artist’s eyes.
“I chose the title KNS088 because for eight years I was called by this number instead of a name,” wrote Azimitabar in an artist brief for the Art Gallery of NSW.
The artist was forced to flee Iranian persecution by boat, seeking asylum in Australia in 2013. As is notorious for the Australian immigration detention system, Azimitabar’s experience was one of becoming caught in years of bureaucratic torture, being passed between detention centres and sterile hotel captivity, and witnessing systematic violence.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says the top international body “has ongoing concerns with Australia’s legislative and policy framework of mandatory detention, which has resulted in increasing numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons being in prolonged and indefinite detention”.
Azimitabar used the power of art to stay focused despite his suffering and to build connections with artists in the outside world during his eight long years in detention. In a testimony to his personal strength, a sense of responsibility to the suffering of others, and to his insight as an artist, he wrote:
“The message of my painting is love. Love is how we kill the monsters. We are all one family, connected by our humanity.”