A Kurdish refugee was nominated for Australia’s most prestigious art prize on Thursday for a self-portrait painted with a toothbrush during his eight-year detention. Mostafa Azimitabar, who fled Iran, told AFP that he was living “one of the best moments of (his) life”, after learning that he was a finalist for the Archibald Portrait Prize, awarded since 1921 to the most talented painters in Australia.

A toothbrush and coffee

He started painting with a toothbrush in 2014, when he had just been interned in one of the “offshore” detention camps for illegal immigrants run by Australia on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. After being refused paint by his guards, who feared he was swallowing it to harm himself, Mostafa Azimitibar returned to the dormitory he shared with dozens of other refugees. There, his gaze stopped on a cup of coffee and a toothbrush.

“I don’t know what happened… It was a special moment. I grabbed the toothbrush, dipped it in coffee and ran it” over paper, he said, describing the moment as a “victory”. He titled his self-portrait “KNS088,” his service number during his eight years in detention, and wanted his work to capture “the pain, sadness and strength” of refugee life. “Art and painting helped me to be strong, to continue. Because, when I paint, I no longer feel any trauma,” he said.

$100,000 for the winner

Mostafa Azimitabar was finally released on January 21, 2021, without notice or explanation. Since then, he has been trying to rebuild his life in Australia, working for a charity. He continues to paint, but now says he is less inspired by traditional tools. “This toothbrush is a very good friend of mine,” he explained.

The winner of the Archibald Prize, endowed with 100,000 Australian dollars (68,000 euros), will be announced on May 13.

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