At the mention of European monarchs and political figures from the Renaissance, the image conjured in one's mind is often that of a stern figure in an emotionless state, sporting the types of elaborate hairdos and intricate clothing donned by the elite of the time; those that possessed power and helmed societies. Fair-skinned, sleek-haired, rosy-cheeked and very, very poised, captured in a moment that suggested immense prestige.

In a challenge to that instant attribution to whiteness and all of its associated traits, Romanian photographer Horia Manolache reimagines portraits of grand European royals and leaders by placing refugees in their iconic portraits instead. From Queen Victoria and Peter the Great, to Queen Marie of Romania and Rudolf II Holy Roman Emperor, the photo series, titled ‘Repainting History’, swaps out royals for refugees from countries such as Iran, Sudan, Syria, Mozambique and Bosnia.

Portrait of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom by artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter (left), alongside Manolache's recreation of the portrait (right).

Through the photo series, Manolache deconstructs the various "truths" of history as presented through the brushstrokes of Renaissance painters and in history books, by invoking a stark ‘what if?: what if European ancestors were, or resembled, people of color? What if, with a roll of dice, today's "refugees" had grown up in a different time and place, far away from the violent realities of the present, and had been in the place of powerful European monarchs? 

With this project I tried to challenge the way people are seeing refugees

The refugees featured in the series pose as royals, but their realities are a far cry from the picturesque backgrounds painted by the artists of the Renaissance - they are people who have fled from war-torn countries, have been uprooted due to an oppressive lethargy and lack of promise, or are facing persecution. But placing them in the settings reserved for European monarchs is a purposeful move by Manolache to challenge people's distorted and xenophobic perceptions of refugees as intruders and "leeches", by subverting that altogether and reasserting their place in Europe, as royalty. 

Portrait of Queen Maria II of Portugal by artist Sir Thomas Lawrence (left), alongside Manolache's recreation of the portrait (right).

“I see lots of discussions about refugees. There are some people who see themselves as having the authority to decide on who is good or who is bad. They usually use a mainstream discourse without analysing the nuances. [...] With this project I tried to challenge the way people are seeing refugees by transforming them into something they trust and also by making them aware that history could have been different,” Manolache says.

One of the photos substitutes King Leopold II of Belgium for a young black boy named Amro, who with his family had sought refuge in Romania. Here, Manolache probes the "legacy" of the King who colonised the Congo and was horrifically and violently - he has often been compared to Hitler - racist and exploitative. After a spike in the price of rubber in the 1890s, Leopold exploited natives to harvest and process rubber, reserving the profits for public and private buildings in Belgium, and later bequeathing the private properties to the Belgian state. Modern consensus estimates the death toll from 1 million to 15 million during his tyrannical rule. 

King Leopold II child portrait, by German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (left), alongside Manolache's recreation of the portrait (right).

The moment, an exact replica of the original, it alters the meanings and intentions invoked by the monarch and his artist, not merely to question their validity but to completely erase the royal figure's imposing presence and to put in their place someone who, in Manolache's eyes, deserves the recognition. Manolache also emphasises history’s leniency in preserving the photo of Leopold’s childhood and legacy, with little to know of his victims, and intended, in the portrait, to “underline this horrific relationship that Leopold had with Africa," Manolache says. 

Many of the models had stories of persecution in their countries. Some of them needed protection, so we chose to limit the details about them

The identities of some of the models of the portraits remain undisclosed for their protection, with their portraits relying mostly on the visual rather than a backstory or a biography. “Many of the models had stories of persecution in their countries. Some of them needed protection, so we chose to limit the details about them,” says Manolache, but visibility itself remains the central point of his project: to have a refugee under the spotlight instead of the monarchs of a time long gone. Aside from the poetic storytelling of the project, Manolache entertains an actual perceptional drift, questioning whether or not Europeans had markedly different features than presented in the original portraits.

Portrait of Queen Drottning Christina of Sweden by artist Sébastien Bourdon (left), alongside Manolache's recreation of the portrait (right).

“There are several archaeological findings which suggest that people from the European continent had very different physical features. Looking at the scale of the history, we are thinking of humans for tens of thousand of years who evolved in various ways. It is like the butterfly effect, everything changed in subtle ways, we cannot control that. The Cheddar Man itself leaves room for speculations,” Manolache added.

The Cheddar Man, an intriguing discovery that rattled many bigoted people, is a human male fossil discovered in 1903 in Cheddar George, Somerset, England, and was found to be Britain’s oldest, fully intact skeleton that dates to 10,000 years ago. He had brown hair, blue eyes and “dark to black” skin, the latter surprising many. Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum, using DNA technology, have uncovered Cheddar Man’s genome, used to facially construct what Cheddar Man might have looked like. The result underlines that lighter-skinned Europeans are relatively recent, as no prehistoric Briton of Cheddar Man’s age had previously had their genome analysed. "I see this race partition in general as doing a lot of harm to us," says Manolache.


Facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, oldest skeleton of a Briton. Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

“Eastern Europeans have quite un-European looking ancestors. The oldest remains of a modern European that were discovered in 2002, in the ”PeČ™tera 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. Such as the famed Cheddar Man,” explains Manolache in his statement on the project.

I see this race partition in general as doing a lot of harm to us

Photo series and projects similar to Repainting History have been released in recent years with themes of disrupting imagery of the powerful and the disenfranchised, such as Syrian artist Abdalla Al Omar’s ‘The Vulnerability Series’ that imagines modern day presidents and political figures such as US President Donald Trump and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as refugees, looking sorrowful and vulnerable, visually challenging the more common portrayals we see of these powerful figures in mass media.

Portrait of Queen Mary of Romania by artist Philip de László (left), alongside Manolache's recreation of the portrait (right).

Additionally, another series by Lebanese visual artist and writer, Chaza Charafeddine titled ‘Maidames’ depicts 10 foreign domestic workers, many of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, as iconic women in history such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Fawzia and the Virgin Mary. The series delves into the harrowing issue plaguing our culture that deems domestic workers as inferior, second-class citizens. Manolache himself also previously dabbled with projects that challenge perception, and pose a hypothetical “what if?”, such as a photo series that imagines homeless people in San Francisco, US as they dream to be seen. In both series, he’s devoted an effort to deconstruct stigmas, and humanise society’s most vulnerable.

...being known and loved for who they are is a privilege that is mostly inaccessible to refugees. 

Portrait of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, by artist Hans von Aachen (left), alongside Manolache's recreation of the portrait (right).

As he writes in his statement, "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."