When Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar received his confirmation of receipt from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Kurdish refugee knew he could finally start calling himself an artist.
Entering his self-portrait into the 2022 Archibald prize a day before deadline on Thursday, he is still slightly overwhelmed that what began as an exercise in psychological survival during six years in detention on Manus Island has developed into an artwork.
“I didn’t have any experience of art, [in Iran] I didn’t have any art teacher in my life,” he told Guardian Australia. “But when I got to Manus I deeply just wanted to get away from all the noise and the guards. I found tranquility in paper, coffee and toothbrushes.”
Without access to brushes and paints, these were the materials used by Azimitabar when he started making art as a detainee.
After almost eight years in detention, including 14 months locked up in two Melbourne hotels after his transfer to Australia, Azimitabar finally secured his freedom in early 2021. He is now suing the Australian government for unlawful imprisonment in the Park and Mantra hotels.
While initially delighted to work with real art materials for the first time, he soon reverted back to supermarket-bought coffee and toothbrushes – with the addition of some acrylic paint.
“I use coffee because I want [to document] the memories of what I went through for eight years,” said the former detainee.
“The coffee and toothbrushes are the small things [that represent] simplicity and resistance. They show I survived, they show I’ve continued.”
Also delivering his self-portrait to the Art Gallery of NSW on Thursday was fellow Kurdish Iranian refugee and former Manus Island detainee Farhad Bandesh.
During his seven-and-a-half years of incarceration, he received a regular supply of artists’ materials from Ben Quilty, whose portrait of Margaret Olley won the Archibald prize in 2011.
But he too was forced to resort to coffee at times; his paints and brushes were confiscated by guards on a number of occasions.
Bandesh completed more than 100 artworks while in detention, and since being released in late 2020 has had works exhibited at the Indigenous-run Blak Dot gallery in Melbourne.
“The red, yellow and green on my face are the colours of my land [the Kurdistan flag],” he told the Guardian. “The blue is for the ocean I crossed to come to Australia; it says safety and freedom.”
The work depicts a joyful-looking Bandesh.
“Yes, I am smiling in the portrait,” he said in an artist’s statement. “Because at the same time that I am still holding the pain and trauma of what happened to me under this cruel policy, I am smiling because this is the resistance. They can beat me, insult me, hurt me but I am still strong and with my smile, I fight for my rights and for other innocent refugees.”
Both Bandesh and Azimitabar worked on their Archibald entries at the studio of fellow artist, film-maker and refugee advocate Angus McDonald, who is making a documentary about their lives.
The pair are also musicians and performed together in the 2021 Refugee Week concert Band Together at Sydney Town Hall in June. Bandesh is also studying viticulture in regional Victoria.
The winners of the $100,00 Archibald prize for portraiture, the $50,000 Wynne prize for landscape and sculpture, and the $40,000 Sulman prize for best subject painting, genre painting or mural will be announced on Friday 13 May.
The exhibition will remain on show at the Art Gallery of NSW until 28 August and then tour regional NSW and Victoria.