Repainting History

What if...?

I assumed the challenge of finding balance on the verge of history. My ambition was to cross the spacial and time borders at once. I began photographing people who have uprooted themselves from their homes because of war, poverty or lack of prospects and reached countries very different than their own under a refugee identity. I then complemented their physical travel with an opportunity to travel through time under a royal identity.

Immigrants in royal garments pose as European political leaders to challenge you, the viewer, to a mental drill –– Is anything wrong with these pictures? I try to exercise your mind, to free you from the groundless confinements of prejudice. I confront you with an alternate reality to encourage you to behold within yourself this contemporary truth: "us versus them" does not belong in the story of our relationship with foreign people who are asking to come in.


The shelter one finds from history actually originates from that very history. It is not an escape out of one's own time, but a deeper immersion in it. 


​​On the 16th of May 1866, 27 years old Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was traveling second class, on the Odessa train via Salzburg, under a false identity. His Swiss passport indicated he was Karl Hettingen, a young man on a business trip, yet only he and his covert aids knew he was in fact on his way to becoming the Rulling Prince of the Romanian United Principlities. On that hard and cold train bench, he was temporarily stripped of his royal identity, undertaking the risk of traveling like a commoner because the political conflict between Prussia and the Austrian Empire was a threat to his life. He was a temporary refugee, traveling towards a new home. Once he reached Romania, a huge crowd welcomed him and this warm reception came to define his rule over the nation. Romanians have never regretted his clandestine journey, that would culminate with his proclaiming Romania an independent and sovereign nation in 1877. Carol I endeared himself to the people by proving his nobility did not stem from his royal title, but from his very own character. 

Being known and loved for who they are is a privilege that is mostly inaccessible to refugees. The refugee identity overwrites and levels people coming from radically different backgrounds, with unique life histories, with precious dreams and aspirations, with valuable talents and, most importantly with personal meaning. Something irreplaceable is lost when all these nuances fade in one bland identity, multiplied by millions. 

Romanian photographer Horia Manolache fights to reclaim those core colours hidden under the reductionist term ”refugee” and to use them to hopefully repaint the future of the displaced individuals around the globe. His ambition is to cross the spacial and the time borders, all at once. So he photographs people who have uprooted themselves from their homes because of war, poverty or lack of prospects and reached countries very different than their own, under a refugee identity. He then completes their physical travel with an opportunity to travel through time, under a royal identity. Classical portraits of European political leaders are inhabited by immigrants taking on royal garments and poses to challenge the viewer to a mental drill: would anything be wrong with the pictures? Would we experience a sense of unease at the sight of an African curly haired Napoleon Bonaparte? Or were we to cringe faced with a vision a dark-skinned Drottning Kristina of Sweden? Perhaps a Roma Marie of Romania would scandalize us? 

Eastern Europeans have quite un-European looking ancestors. The oldest remains of a modern European, that were discovered in 2002, in the ”Peștera cu Oase” site, in Romania, paint the portrait of a dark-skinned Romanian, with a wide nose and fleshy lower lip, but most strikingly, with Mongolian eyes. The stereotype of the ivory-skinned, fair-haired, brown-eyed inhabitant is rather new for the Western European too. Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, for example, the famed Cheddar Man, had the genetic markers of a person living in the Near East or the Pontic steppe. He most probably had dark, curly/wavy hair, blue eyes and dark to very dark skin, a portrait researchers think is the result of immigration. 

Archaeologists may differ in their interpretations of the findings, but the issue at stake remains: is our assumption of biological perpetuity enough to secure our ideals of ethnic continuity upon a certain region? What if our biological perpetuity is not exactly accurate? Would it hurt our national identity? Would it damage our appraisal of the sinuous, oftentimes sacrificial ways in which our ancestors laid the foundations of our current civilization? Would our ancestors' skin color alter our need to connect with them? Would we still look at our immigrant forefathers like we were to stare threat directly in the eye? Then why are we so afraid of immigrants today?

Through his visuals, Horia Manolache challenges our perceptions by confronting our negative prejudices with their positive twin. Why not imagine the least cherished members of a certain society – its non-citizens – like they were its most prized nobility? Horia’s project invites us to honestly consider how would history differ if both royals and refugees were to be stripped of their privilege and stigma, down to their human core, and then made to exchange places. And from an image to another, a clearer answer starts to emerge. It speaks of empathy, of authentic knowledge, of humbleness and of other-centeredness. It alludes to reclaiming the educational value of history and allowing it to teach us how to treat vulnerable populations with dignity.

​The birds where singing high at the beginning of May 2019, in the stables yard of Windsor castle where an overjoyed Prince Harry announces to the press that his wife, Meghan Markle, the Dutches of Sussex, has given birth to a ”very healthy boy”. ”Mother and baby are doing incredibly well”, Prince Harry said while acknowledging that being present to the birth had been ”the most amazing experience he could ever have possibly imagined”. His son is the Queen's eighth great-grandchild. The Kingdom Choir, the gospel group that sang at Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding, have written a lullaby for the new baby. ”May your dreams be as high as the open sky” it said and the conductor explained ”it is a blessing to sing of the royal baby”.


Two months prior, another birth would capture international attention, although the reasons had been far from thrilling the world. In Al-Hawl refugee camp, in Northern Syria, Shamima Begum, a British-born woman who left the United Kingdom in 2015 to join the Islamic State jihadists in the Middle East, had given birth to a child. 


After the fall of the last ISIS stronghold, under the military pressure of the international coalition against terrorism, thousands of women and children were displaced and reaching out to refugee camps in Syria. Shamima was one of them: a leftover ISIS bride; the wife of a Danish recruit who impregnated her three times, while she was still an underage; mother of a single living child. She pleaded for a different destiny: ”If not for my own sake, then for the sake of my child”, she pleaded, ”allow me to return”.


No ray of hope was to come from the British side. The authorities canceled her British citizenship leaving her internationally stranded, on account of the danger she posed to the country should she return. But then they referred her to Bangladesh, the native country of her parents, as if a developing country would be better equipped to customize a deradicalization strategy for her. In fact, the world was presented with a distasteful double-standard: human rights are of utmost importance, only if they are the rights of utmost important humans. Shortly after her initial press interview, Shamima’s ”unimportant” baby died, innocent of his parent’s wrongdoings. Their short life together would speak of an intricate blend of naivete and guilt too complex for the often oversimplified public narrative on refugees. 


While numerous European politicians were exploiting the voters' fear of unknown to fuel their campaigns, the real coordinates of the European immigrant crisis were becoming less and less visible to the public, hidden under a heavy shadow of emotionalism. Extremist European parties thrived on discourses opposing immigration by feeding into voters' fear of the unknown. But what if the rightfully feared unknown was not the new-comer, but our very own old history that would argue we are far from being victims of a global crisis; that we were its moral architects?

In a heart-wrenching black and white photograph taken at Baringa, Congo state in 1904, a dazed father stares at the hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter. They were severed as a punishment for having harvested too little rubber. The man had brought them to missionaries in hope they would understand the devastation brought by the rule of King Leopold II. Leopold was King of the Belgians for 44 years, the longest reign in the history of the Belgian monarchy. He founded and owned the Congo Free State, a private administrative concession that the colonial European nations offered the monarch, under the condition that he would improve the lives of the natives. Not only did King Leopold not improve their lives, he became the architect of an economically motivated genocide. It is estimated that around 10 million Congolese lost their lives in the brutal hands of administrative agents in charge of rubber exploitation to the benefit of Leopold.

It is precisely why Horia Manolache chose to re-enact Leopold childhood portrait with the help of Amro, a child whose family sought refuge in Romania. Amro's skin colour would be the most powerful reminder that despicable greed and profoundly disordered view of human value reverberate in history even after the perpetrator is long gone. The now Democratic Republic of Congo is ”one of the most complex and challenging humanitarian situations worldwide”, as the UN Refugee Agency states. The unrest in the African country has displaced an estimated 4.5 million people, 826.000 of which are being hosted in other African countries. More than 4 million lives, that statistics would facelessly record. Is it fair that history only preserved the image of the Leopold and not of his million victims? Is it equitable to know so much about the perpetrator, yet so little about his victims?

King Leopold was not unique in his ill demeanour.


Some of our highest ranking historical figures would act out despicable character traits and still manage to secure a place in history. At the same time though, some of the most enriching modern thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Hannah Arendt, share in common a lesser known fact that they were once refugees. 

Assuming they were only laudable exceptions to the refugee community and continuing to favour the negative prejudices describing asylum seekers inevitably leads to an insidious calculation: should a person act/be a certain way in order to be worthy of receiving help exactly when they need it most? How would they need to look, what should their attire be? Should their skin glow a certain tone? Should they all be bright? Cultured? Skilled? Ambitious? Should they show no sign of mental distress despite their critical situation? What makes one qualify to receiving support? As cynical as these questions may sound, they are simply an expression of the utilitarian principle overarching Europeans' reluctance towards refugees at the peak of what came to be known as a crisis.

With politicians inflating their popularity by playing the worried benefactors of economically dysfunctional societies that would only disintegrate further should they to welcome vulnerable people from conflict ridden countries, voters were directed to ruminate on the archetype of the evil-refugee. As such, immigration easily became the top concern of voters in 22 of the 27 EU countries and it kept its position for four years in a row, starting 2015.

An EU-wide survey led for the European Commission revealed that terrorism had replaced the ”economic situation” as the dominating fear in Ireland, Spain, Romania, Croatia and Lithuania.

A May 2019 survey led by the Migration Policy Center (MPC) among 17 European and Mediterranean countries found Greece and Hungary to be the least likely to display a positive attitude towards immigrants, while a majority of citizens in a majority of countries surveyed were less inclined to a negative view of immigrants. One may find it hard to reconcile such data with the one provided by the EC survey. This only shows that the general picture is more complex than we would easily imagine. 

The MPC survey examined three types of perspectives: attitudes towards immigrants, perceptions of the effects of immigration and attitudes towards immigration. 

What the dataset revealed was that Europeans differentiate between immigrants and tend to be more welcoming of EU immigrants, although negativity towards non-EU immigrants did generally decrease. (Hungary was still an exception here and so was Sweden.) 


Europeans incline to differentiate the areas in which immigrants may affect public life. As an example, most Europeans think immigrants may have a positive effect on the culture of the receiving country, while at the same time thinking that immigration has had a negative effect on crime. Many Europeans said immigration is having a negative effect on government budgets, but others were thoroughly disagreeing with this view. 

The key to this apparently antagonistic view was eloquently described by the authors of the MPC study: ”individuals are most concerned about the effect of immigration on their safety and on the sustainability of rapid demographic transformation on government budgets and, on the other, we know that Europeans most concerned by immigration are those who value security most highly in their day-to-day lives”. 

An interesting factor discovered by the MCP survey was that, depite the religion- or ethnicity-centered hate that has circled the internet numerous times since the 2015 crisis started, what matters most to Europeans is, in their words, the immigrant's commitment to the local way of life. Less than 25 percent said a Christian background was important and "being white" had the least support. Whereas the immigrants' willingness to immerse in the host-culture and adopt its rules ranked on top of their priorities.

Among the countries surveyed on the topic by Pew Global, an average 49% say immigrants want to be distinct from the host country’s society, while a median of 45% say immigrants want to adopt the host country’s customs and way of life. 

It is right at the heart of these divisive perceptions that Horia Manolache nestles his photographic project. And looking at the matter through his lenses, somehow the tragedy of the 68 million people that were forced to leave their homes worldwide since the end of 2014 begins to clarify. 

What can be achieved through just 10 photographs? Well, that may be feeling the odd familiarity towards the costume play of Horia's subjects, the vivid memory of our own childhood pretend games. Then, seeing a refugee play could possibly allude to the fact that we could have more in common than one might guess. Or perhaps it has to do with us recognizing that we still hold that childish belief that we get to decide who we want to become, no matter how harsh our present identity may be. Or, even better, maybe it makes us wish that our childish belief was not that childish after all.

The project does not necessarily represent the official position of the Administration of the National Cultural Fund. AFCN shall not be held liable for the project's content or any use to which the project outcome might be put. These are the sole responsibility of the beneficiary of the funding.


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