Innocence personified by Blake Prize winner
Fabian Astore's The Threshold was inspired by a girl in a Turkish mosque.
A little girl runs carefree in concentric circles past 20 men worshipping in Istanbul's Suleymaniye Mosque, while presumably her mother prays out of sight behind a lattice.
Ten months on, the girl has become the innocent face and figure of Australia's 2012 religious art prize - though she may never know it.
"The context of where she is is extremely powerful," says the Bankstown-born, Balmain artist Fabian Astore. "That particular space would be off limits to her, I'm assuming, once she reaches puberty."
Blake Prize for religious art 2012
''Meat'', by John McRae, 100 x 140cm.
Astore has been named the joint winner of the $20,000 61st Blake Prize for his seven-minute video The Threshold, alongside Fremantle artist Eveline Kotai for her Buddhism-inspired triptych Writing on Air – Mantra.
"I'm not trying to comment either way on Islam," says Astore, 48, who was raised Catholic but is now agnostic. "I'm not interested in dogma per se; I find it too restrictive."
Astore was in Turkey in January when he wandered into the exquisitely lighted Ottoman imperial Suleymaniye Mosque, the largest in Istanbul and opened in 1528.
"It was quite a spontaneous thing," Astore says of the 1pm prayer session he captured. "In Istanbul it was very free and open; there were no restrictions for shooting [pictures and video] in a mosque. Even during prayer time, you're quite free to go through.
"I'd sat down and the prayer song began, and I found it extremely moving. I don't practice a religion and I'm not a believer in that sense, but I've always believed in the spiritual."
Astore pressed record on his DSLR camera, and the serendipitous artwork began.
"As a kid growing up and going to a Catholic church on a Sunday, it was quite a severe environment. But here was a little girl running through the space during prayer time, and I kept thinking, 'Why wasn't someone grabbing her?' But no adult approached the girl."
The finished video, combining digital effects to show what might be a light trail of particles or dark smoke or perhaps a flowing veil following her, is mostly captured in one long shoot.
But Astore is not prescribing any purpose to his video art.
"I'm much more interested in the fundamentals of religious practice [than a religious critique]. In this particular instance, it's the innocence of the child, very freely expressing her joy of just being a child."
It's unlikely the girl knew she was being filmed, he says. "I was aware this was a delicate situation - a girl in a mosque, and how would people read that? But it had so many issues that seemed to be symbolised just by her presence in that space that I couldn't ignore it."
The winner of the Blake Prize for Human Justice meanwhile is Saif Almurayati, whose video Unfolding History tells his life story of being born in Baghdad, but fleeing Iraq with his family because his doctor father opposed Saddam Hussein's regime.
"After 1991, if we had stayed we would have got killed, all of us," says Almurayati.
He and his family lived in refugee camps in Turkey and Iran, then spent six years in Syria before finally settling in Australia. The common thread through the 36-year-old's artwork however is an Islamic chant, and the music he recalls in his grandmother's house that followed him across borders; a soothing balm against the rough times.
"At the beginning in a new place you feel like an outsider, you don't belong to anywhere," says Almurayati. "Australia was the final piece, and I've been here more than 11 years now."
One of the award's sponsors is the Maritime Union of Australia. Its national secretary, Paddy Crumlin, said: “Saif Almurayati's work is an outstanding expression of what many people, who are the refugees and economic and political diaspora throughout the globe, experience and feel. This stressful, and at times, tragic mobilisation, is often not of their own choosing, but a survival mechanism."
The 5th Blake Poetry Prize was awarded to West Australian poet Graham Kershaw, for his poem Altar Rock. Hyun-Hee Lee has been awarded the John Coburn Emerging Artist Award for her work, Homage.
The 57 Blake finalist works will be shown at Sydney's S.H. Ervin Gallery from until December 16.