One side effect of the UK’s Brexit referendum was the way that xenophobic rhetoric became mainstream – a development that has been blamed for the recent spate of attacks on EU immigrants in the UK. On the other side of the continent, the Brexit vote and anti-immigrant backlash has caused consternation in Romania, whose people were the target of a verbal attack by Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Now two Romanian artists have riposted with a small exhibition that exaggerates the fear of a Romanian “invasion” to a surreal conclusion – the takeover of Buckingham Palace by a gypsy camp.
In “Nigel’s Dream”, Eugen Raportoru has used the style he usually employs to depict “mahala” – a Romanian word for slums – to portray the gates of Buckingham Palace. His work is flanked by two paintings of moustached beefeaters by fellow Romanian artist Paul Hitter. Like Raportoru, Hitter has subverted his subject; one of the guards is holding a fry-up while the other’s shirt is open and his flies are undone. They are surrounded by British symbols – a cup of tea, a football hooligan, the front page of The Sun newspaper.
The exhibition has the caption “the loonies have taken over the asylum”. It was briefly on show at the Musette Cube, a small exhibition space in downtown Bucharest. With the divisive Brexit vote still raw in the UK, many of those who came in for a closer look were Brits staying at the nearby Hilton and Radisson hotels.
I caught up with Hitter at the popular Black Sea resort of Mamaia, a two-hour drive from Bucharest. At the end of the summer season, the beaches and promenades are deserted and most of the shops and cafes already shuttered for the winter. Sitting in an empty restaurant, Hitter explains that the inspiration for the exhibition came from a Facebook dispute with his agent, Alexandru Harbuzaru of Fortin.
Despite the subject of the exhibition, Hitter is no rampant Europhile, and had reposted some of Farage’s arguments against the EU. Harbuzaru then drew his attention to Farage’s comment that, “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door”, made during a 2014 radio interview.
“I agreed with some of the things Nigel said, but I disagreed with the way he made Romanians the scapegoats in his campaign,” Hitter tells bne IntelliNews. Although he, Raportoru and Harbuzaru all had different opinions on the EU, they decided to “do something for the Romanians and answer back”, says Hitter, pointing out that there had been no official response to Farage’s comment from Bucharest.
“Alex had this idea of Nigel’s Dream, but we tried to turn it into Nigel’s Nightmare. We tried to give a smart, funny and cultural answer to the problem of discrimination,” he explains.
Stereotypes and the middle way
Hitter says the two artists tried to “give back British humour in a Romanian way”. His use of symbols of Britishness in his two works “play with stereotypes in the way Romanians are stereotyped”. The gypsy takeover of the palace highlights the frequent confusion of Romanians with Roma, and discrimination against gypsies as well as Romanians.
A manifesto and an open letter to Farage are published alongside the artworks both in the exhibition and on the “Nigel’s Dream” website. The authors have thrown in Britishisms like “nice one” and “pip pip old chap” for comic effect, and it moves easily from congratulatory to ironic, finally segueing into an excoriation of Britain’s “absolutely toxic” public opinion. “You have a duty of care towards the people of [the] United Kingdom. And with Brexit, you have breached it,” the letter says.
It also stresses the benefits Romanians have brought to the UK, and claims that since most immigrants are young people keen to work and with no dependents they put little burden on the British welfare system. The letter ironically congratulates Farage since, “You will no longer be bothered by a massive future influx of Romanians knocking at your gates… No longer will we clean your streets, tend your greens, cater your fish and chips, assist your elderly, heal your sickly, educate your young, pay your taxes, contribute to the growth of the UK.”
Hitter’s grievance against the Ukip leader is over his scapegoating of “ordinary people trying to make a living”. He personally experienced discrimination in Germany when he studied at the Munich Art Academy, where he “felt frustrated to be regarded as an East European criminal”.
At the same time, he criticises the huge differences in income and living standards within the EU, pointing out that he earned four times as much as a bartender in Munich than in the IT industry in Romania. “We are all in the EU, so one way or another we should be the same,” he says, arguing that politicians should look at why so many Romanians go to Great Britain. “It’s not the people’s fault.”
While Romania is generally seen as a beneficiary of the EU, Hitter notes that many people in Romania are ambivalent about membership, since Romanian politicians have failed to use the country’s membership to really benefit the country. “Sometimes they are stealing the money or giving the grants to foreign investors, while Romanian investors don’t get money from the Romanian government – a lot of people are pissed with this story of the EU.”
There are now plans to take the exhibition to the UK, and Harbuzaru is already in talks with a gallery in London. By using their art to spread the message against stereotyping and discrimination, the artists want to make a real difference rather than just “spitting it out on social media”, says Hitter.
He sees the Brexit vote and Farage’s attitude to Romanians as part of a dangerous global shift towards extremism. “More and more there’s a split society and everything goes to extremes,” he says. “By making fun of Nigel and pushing it so far, we are trying to raise an alarm. There’s a lot of exaggeration from both sides. I think the middle way is best.”