A Woman with Brown Hair’s Journey to the White Country: An Interview with Hristina Tasheva

by: , June 25, 2022

© Hristina Tasheva, The woman with the brown hair (WBH) or me and my informant.. Courtesy of the artist.

The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant (2015) is a photobook by Bulgarian-Dutch artist Hristina Tasheva. A university educated Eastern European woman who once worked as a cleaner in a western country, Tasheva based her book on 12 years of experience as a migrant. Art historian Cristina Nualart enters a dialogue with the artist to talk about her representation of complex visual and textual dystopia.


Tasheva was born in 1976 in Bulgaria. She graduated from Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and earned her MA in Photography at AKV St. Joost in Breda, the Netherlands. As an Eastern European living in Western Europe, migration, identity, and belonging have been central themes in her work. Using photography, text, and performance, Tasheva develops most of her projects through the photobook format. Her publications appeared in exhibitions in the USA and numerous European countries. She has also been shortlisted for several awards. Her most recent book, In Belief is Power (2019), arose from the outrage at the way her home country Bulgaria gave nationalists free rein in the ‘hunt’ for Muslim refugees from Turkey. Combining archive and contemporary photographs, drawings, and fragments of text, Tasheva weaves together history and current events, investigating the influence of ideologies, power, and propaganda on life in a border area. The Dutch newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’ selected In Belief is Power as one of the ten most beautiful Dutch photobooks of 2019. In May 2020, Tasheva became the recipient of the Mondriaan Fund Stipendium for Established Artists.


Hristina Tasheva


Hristina Tasheva, The woman with the brown hair (WBH) or me and my informant.. Courtesy of the artist.
Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Courtesy of the artist.


A flash photo captures young Tasheva with short hair hand-wringing the laundry in a decrepit bathroom. It is from around the year 2000 or 2001, she says, ‘a glimpse of the WBH before leaving Bulgaria.’ The snapshot is Tasheva’s personal reminder of a scene from Boris Mikhailov’s book Case History (1999), unveiling the living conditions of the marginalised and homeless in the post-communist Ukraine.

Tasheva got her degree in Economics and left Bulgaria in 2001. During the first years of her stay in the Netherlands she was an illegal alien. Trying to find a place in a Western society and deal with the identity issues brought along by migration, she developed artistic skills that enabled her, she says, to survive spiritually. Photography enabled her to visualise herself on her journey of self-exploration, materialised in the book’s multi-faceted narrative, which combines narrative, photographs of her early life, some self-portraits in which she assumes the identities of, among others, theorist Julia Kristeva and visual artist Francis Alÿs, as well as intimate pictures taken with her partner.

The distance to herself that photography affords the artist in her autobiographical exploration is reinforced in the crafted literary text interwoven with the visual narrative. Rather than writing in first person, Tasheva chooses othering words to name herself: the capitalised pronoun She, the Woman with Brown Hair (WBH) or ‘the Rat.’



Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Page spread. Courtesy of the artist.


Cristina Nualart (CN): Among the non-human creatures in the narrative, there is a rat, which is also a self-representation. In its dual role as a self-portrait and as a social reflection of yourself, it is a provocative illumination of the multiple perspectives that criss-cross a society. The rat is both the ‘inferior’ racialised other, and also your own changing view of yourself—indicating a downturn in self-esteem—as you realise how you are seen by the dominant group with white privilege.

Hristina Tasheva (HT): Turning She (the WBH) into a Rat follows from an earlier project: Imagine that the migrant was not a human being (Towards an encyclopaedia of metaphors for the migrant identity). I stood on busy streets in Sao Paulo, Sofia, Budapest, Vienna, and Brussels wearing a board on which I had written in the local language: ‘My name is Hristina. I am an artist and an immigrant myself. I am working on a project, searching for the identity of the migrant. Imagine that the migrant wasn’t a human being, what else would it be? Can you draw this for me? Thank you very much!’

Diverse people paused to read the text or stopped to chat. Many took the opportunity to tell me their thoughts, speaking of their feelings as either immigrants or locals. Some shared similar experiences. Others told me that I should go back to my country of origin. I collected the drawings that people made, mostly anonymously, in an archive divided in eight sections: fauna, flora, landscapes, human parts, objects, symbols, abstractions and others. From the fauna section, the most attractive animal to me was the Rat, which I ‘adopted’ and made the main character in The WBH, or me and my informant.



Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Page spread. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: In your book, your ‘adoption’ of the Rat identity shows you dressed as a rat and digitally outlined in orange (a colour associated with Dutch royalty). A number of your self-portraits are staged photographs, for example, with a string of pearls in your mouth, or wearing a pig’s nose. Others seem to be casual snapshots of you having a coffee or chatting at home with someone. But these are not random pictures pulled from your personal archive…

HT: Indeed, some self-portraits are staged after existing photographs found online. To give myself all the ethical freedom to tell stories without making compromises (such as appropriating the portrait of another person, or using humour or irony), I become the storyteller and the observed, actor and observer. My life is the work, I am the work and always in progress. Often, I ‘play’ different characters at the same time. I staged self-portraits posing as the theoreticians that are important to me: Julia [Kristeva], Abdelmalek [Sayad], Stuart [Hall] and Vilém [Flusser]). I ‘became’ them to circumvent copyright infringement, taking photographs of myself imitating their postures as seen in images found on the Internet. I have made these subjects the prophets in the story, because reading their theory inspires my visual experiments and helps me to understand events in my personal life and define my attitude as an artist. For the same reason, I staged self-portraits in the guise of artists who also play a similar role in my life and artistic practice.


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Detail, p. 5. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: The photobook is populated by characters of various forms, some human—such as yourself or your partner—and some fantasy figures, that are wildly metaphorical, such as the ‘Boot of the Authorities of the Most White Order.’ One of these bizarre creatures is Worm, who having found a solution to the entrenched social problem of structural racism, victoriously cries out: ‘no one will think in White anymore.’ It is an explosive dialogue, and cleverly visual in its capacity to reveal how ideologies operate. How did you think up this scene?

HT: That particular ‘solution’ to structural racism provokes us to imagine that ‘equality will be established because of the dominance of a colour variety.’ In the context of the photobook, ‘Not to think in White anymore’ asks us to believe we can love, care, feel empathy, sacrifice ourselves for the other… I think we all understand that: and my words are meant as reminder, not a discovery or revelation.

The scene was born out of my encounter with the Dutch man I fell in love with. At first, small conflicts arose in daily life due to language and culture, but we overcame them by reminding ourselves that first and foremost it is love that we share with each other, and everything else is negotiable. This way, out of our two separate worlds we created one world shaped by our values, political views, and our purpose in life. My husband was the person in the Netherlands who opened up a whole new perspective for me, because through love we stopped thinking in one colour—white or brown—and learned to see the nuances in our universe.

CN: When you met your husband, you decided to take a Dutch language course and apply for Dutch nationality. In your photobook, ‘The White Test’ woven into the plot quickly transitions from being a tool in an administrative system to becoming an autonomous being, possibly a form of Artificial Intelligence. Are ‘The White Test’ and the process you call ‘Whiterisation’ references to citizenship tests?

HT: On the language course I was taking, I was given a questionnaire, which I refused to fill in. Some of the content is in the story, I just inserted the word ‘White’ here and there:

‘Are you kind and polite to the White People? Do you miss a really good friend?  Do you feel a void around you? Do you miss warmth around you? Do you miss White People around you? Do you often feel abandoned?’

The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) has to prove her loyalty to the White Land by doing two years of heavy labour in ‘the Mines.’ Then she can take the White Test, which is itself a character that smiles and gleams, personifying all the state institutions that classify, arrange and number people to define their place in the social structure.


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Page spread. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: I take the use of words like ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ to be an ironic reference to the stereotype of fairy-tale, heterosexual, and commodified love. If my impressions are correct, these words are not layering a critique of royalty per se; they may be saying something about your history of moving from a republic to a monarchy.

HT: I grew up in a patriarchal environment in socialist Bulgaria, so maybe this stereotype fits me well. But now I live in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the Dutch adore their King, who has a very limited role in the political life of the country and yet he is paid millions of euros every year. ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ refer metaphorically, in the first instance, to the will of creating a different world (the Kingdom of Colour, the In-betweenness) with its own rules and values. The cohabitation of a couple with different nationalities raises the need for a non-nationality, a search for some kind of neutrality.

The in-betweenness is an experimental place, the common ground between two people outside the political notion of nationality and state. The necessary catalyst, therefore, is love, tasked with upholding universal human values ​​such as peace, freedom, equal rights, and human dignity. Love builds experience jointly, sustaining an expression of identity outside the national. It is more appropriate to ask where you are local than where you come from.


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant, p. 96. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: The ‘Most Beautiful Vision that Ever Existed’ is a photograph taken through your fingers, thus explicitly making this a vision from your bodily perspective. Presumably, it is a Dutch landscape that you are framing, yet the characters in the book soon turn the vision into one that is ‘a Human Vision of 186cm long.’ This rapid twist from visions as something sublime, first related to landscape and then to people, leads me to a imagine what might be a coup de foudre, an instance of love at first sight. This short fragment has epic dimensions for me, as it glints with hints of spiritual experiences, references to art history, aesthetics, and romance.

HT: The characters of my mother and my husband in the book represent these real people that have a major place in my life, but they are also metaphors for the homeland and the new country where I now live. That is why references to my Dutch husband could also stand for the Netherlands or the Other, and thus appear as a landscape or arrangement of colours.

CN: Some of the photographs are quite erotically charged, and I would say they work in two ways. In some that feature you, or you and your partner, you create a humorous scene that is nonetheless quite sexual. In others, there are elements like caves, openings in a phallic shaped rock, sausages provocatively held below the waist, etc.

HT: The personal is only a starting point. There is a lot of research on other migrants’ experiences, the clichés connected to them, theory and literature written on the subject, etc. The stereotype that unions between an Eastern European woman and a Western man are an exchange of sex and money rather than mutual love, is implied in the naked couple. The image of a hand grabbing a sausage/phallus is a self-portrait where I recreate an existing photograph that was printed in Boris Mikhailov’s book, Case History. This is how the erotic came into the book.


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant, p. 71. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: A passage on page 118 reiterates the wrenching away of one’s affective bonds:

And again she left       behind      her mother, father, aunts, friends, the sea…

And again she left       behind      her mother, father, aunts, friends, the sea…

And again she left       behind      her mother, father, aunts, friends, the sea…

Do these ‘losses’ sum up the experience of migration?

HT: This part reveals an aspect that often remains hidden—the guilt of the migrant towards her parents and homeland that she left behind. Many people in my home country think that the Bulgarians who emigrated are betrayers (the rats that first escaped the sinking ship). And yet statistically, Bulgarians living abroad are the biggest investors in the country, whereas 22% of the population of Bulgaria live below the poverty line (2020) and another 23% are at risk of poverty (2017).

CN: Some passages express the brutal impact of migration and personal trauma, such as the profound change in one’s sense of identity, as in this quote:

The Rituals, the Red Spirits and the Singing Voices were surrounding her. They were always nearby, but unfortunately often forgotten by the Rat because they were a part of her past, which here in the White Country had no place. (Tasheva 2015: 68)

HT: Sad, but true. Since I arrived in the Netherlands, I can’t really remember myself—the person I was in Bulgaria. In daily life, locals are just happy to meet, communicate and experience the Other as their own reflection of cultural, political preferences. My uniqueness can manifest in private, at home with my partner, or in my artistic work.


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Page spread. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: I wonder if an intriguing photo that looks like an uprooted plant root, is meant to represent the skeleton of a decaying rat.

HT: The uprooted plant marks the moment when the Rat arrives in the White country. The ripped-out vegetation is her realisation that she will have a migrant nature in the future. Vilém Flusser’s essay ‘Exile and Creativity’ talks about the ‘expelled’ humans that uproot everything around them to find their own roots:

Occasionally the expellee will become conscious of the vegetable/vegetative aspect of his exile. He may discover that a human being is not a tree. And that human dignity may consist precisely in not having roots. That the human being becomes human only when he hacks off the vegetable roots that tie him down. … The expellee may discover that air and spirit are closely related concepts and that Luftmensch (from Yiddish: a dreamer or unrealistic person) therefore means human pure and simple. (Flusser 2003: 84)


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Page spread. Courtesy of the artist.


CN: You are not primarily concerned, it would appear, with transhumanism or philosophies of the digital, yet issues discussed in these fields enter your project both as subject and as process. The scanned book is available online, allowing us to freely turn the pages on our screens. The photobook contains material appropriated from the Internet, and you go as far as inserting QR codes, a sign that the physical book is now an insufficient medium for a reflexive relationship between author and reader. Your intention when using these diagrams and links, I infer, is to give an informative, ‘objective’ appearance to some pages, like a textbook. This brings in what one might call ‘educational violence’, the standardised approach to transmitting information that limits our notion of knowledge to a fairly narrow schema.

HT: I build and organise knowledge experimentally. I do not purport to create ‘fake’ content with a few appropriated graphics, on the contrary, they add further information. If a worm talks to a rat, one immediately understands these characters as metaphors. However, if news reports used metaphors, it would cause confusion, and be construed as ‘fake’ news. I often employ realistic imagery—objects or places—to address abstract subjects, like the in-between space where a migrant finds herself. This appropriated material is cited in the endnotes at the back the book. This weaves in different semantic layers and allows the reader to interpret the work from different angles. Occasionally I reference some of my earlier works, such as the project ‘Goud hemel roze honing a portrait of my Dutch husband,’ which becomes one of the characters in The WBH. The thematic links between my projects become visible on my website, where I uploaded a pdf of The WBH to facilitate understanding of the very human sides of migration. The photobook speaks about travel and adventure, a movement that led the designer and I to push the limits of the book format. An artwork has to be ambiguous, to ask questions, to contribute to the understanding of the world, in order to be able to change it.


Hristina Tasheva, The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant. Page spread. Courtesy of the artist.


Find out more: www.hristinatasheva.com


Flusser, Vilém (2003), The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism, Urbana, Chicago & Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mikhailov, Boris (1999), Case History, Zürich: Scalo.

Tasheva, Hristina (2015), The Woman with the Brown Hair (WBH) or Me and My Informant, self-published artist book,  https://hristinatasheva.com/the_wbh.html (last accessed 20 May 2022).

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