On Thursday morning, a portrait I painted of the Kurdish-Iranian refugee, writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani was included among the finalists for this year’s coveted Archibald Prize.
Boochani, finally free and living in New Zealand after the Australian government held him for more than six years on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, symbolises the struggle for a more humane and compassionate approach to the way this country treats those who arrive here seeking our protection and safety.
I’ve known Boochani since 2018, when he collaborated on a documentary I produced about the Manus detention centre. In February this year, I flew to New Zealand and stayed with him for five days. Our conversations guided the way I chose to approach the painting, as well providing the opportunity to get to know him better.
Boochani is a kind and generous man. Surprisingly, given the prolonged struggle and creative intensity with which he indefatigably filled his years of captivity on Manus Island, he is also very funny.
His portrait’s inclusion in the Archibald has considerable meaning. While recognised as Australia’s biggest art competition, the Archibald also transcends the art world, inhabiting a prominent place in our nation’s broader cultural landscape. In its almost 100-year history, the prize has been a touchstone to single out individuals who have made valuable, often inspirational contributions to Australian public life and society.
That Boochani’s portrait will hang in the same space occupied by prime ministers, Indigenous leaders, scientists, academics and our nation’s leading artists, writers and cultural icons is a measure of the significant place he’s cemented in our recent history, not to mention a source of some obvious irony, given that he’s achieved this despite never even setting foot in the Australian mainland.
Remarkably, Boochani is still young. When he arrived on Christmas Island as an asylum seeker in mid-2013, fleeing persecution in Iran, he had just turned 29. In the years that followed, while he endured the brutal, inhumane treatment inflicted upon all 3127 men, women and children transferred to Nauru and Manus Island under the government’s offshore processing regime, Boochani produced an inordinate body of work.
His astonishing literary achievement, No Friend But The Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison – written in a succession of secret text messages – was awarded Australia’s richest writing prize last year and propelled him into the consciousness of many people for the first time. However, Boochani should be understood as more than just as a supremely talented writer.
The energy he directed into his work was manifold and staggeringly productive. He was also a filmmaker (Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time, co-directed with Arash Kamali Sarvestani), a poet, a journalist, an academic, and he collaborated in numerous other projects including theatre, documentaries and video installations, notably Remain, which he created with artist Hoda Afshar. We are missing the scope and breathtaking magnitude of his resistance if we only think about the book.
It’s also easy to forget that the position he occupies now is the product of a creative, multi-disciplinary universe that he built out of nothing from the ground up while he was in captivity: working alone, independent of organisations or political affiliations, and strictly faithful to his own voice under the horrendous conditions he shared with every other innocent human being who was consigned offshore.
Five years ago, what he’d produced hadn’t yet found an avenue to the wider world. Undeterred, he laboured relentlessly, recognising that writing and art were a deep expression of humanity and a powerful act of defiance.
Boochani proceeded to build an ever-expanding world to advance his struggle, forming a small group of talented people around him, including his translators, Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi. For Boochani, everything was about the work, through which he continually strived to expose the malevolence of Australia's policy and, above everything else, to humanise the plight of those the government perpetually sought to keep invisible.
Boochani challenged the political narrative around refugees, forging a new way for other refugees and asylum seekers to also speak out and resist through their own art. Although now free himself, the responsibility to continue providing the hope and the means to maintain the fight to those both onshore and offshore who are not yet free, remains at the forefront of his mind.
Boochani’s work is also fundamentally historical: a crucial record of one of our nation’s darkest and as yet unfinished chapters. We can reflect on it and collectively transform our thinking. His work is a gift: delivered to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves as a society through recognising our shared humanity; and it was given without malice, despite all that we perpetrated upon him. It should not be squandered.
In my portrait, I’ve depicted Boochani directly engaging the viewer, as a confident, peaceful man who survived a brutal ordeal and is now free. His eyes are penetrating. He considers as one of his greatest achievements the seemingly prosaic one: that he is OK.
Boochani does not view himself as a victim. Through his work, he tirelessly fought against the system that tried to break and defeat him. But he was not defeated. In fact, he inspired and mobilised people everywhere. The government aimed to humiliate Boochani, but in my view, it was he who humiliated them. It was an honour to paint him.
Angus McDonald is a six-time Archibald Prize finalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker.
Twitter and Instagram @angusmcz