Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid painted on mural in remote Bulgarian village

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STARO ZHELEZARE // Posters and pictures bearing the image of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid are common in the UAE but it is unexpected to see his image about 4,000 kilometres away in Bulgaria.

In the village of Staro Zhelezare, however, the portrait of the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai graces the outer wall of a family’s home.

It was painted by artists Katarzyna and Ventsislav Piriankov, who have created about 150 murals in the village since last year.

The husband and wife team chose to depict villagers in the company of political leaders and entertainers.

The mural featuring Sheikh Mohammed aims to represent diversity, said Mrs Piriankov.

Painted alongside the Sheikh are Boris III, a former Bulgarian king, and the late patriarch Cyril of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Also depicted is a man representing the Jewish faith. The fifth and final figure in the composition is villager Yanko Mitev, a member of Bulgaria’s Roma minority.

“The idea is tolerance,” said Mrs Piriankov. “It will be impossible to see these people together, talking, in any other place.”

It was Manouela Kostadinova, a businesswoman who works in Dubai and the UK, who suggested Sheikh Mohammed as a subject. Arriving in the emirate three years ago, the Bulgarian was impressed by the high regard in which Sheikh Mohammed is held.

“I saw many people who respect Sheikh Mohammed’s name,” said Mrs Kostadinova, a director at KT&T, a facilities management firm. “He is a leader with a lot of talent, many skills and a lot of support from his people and this all brings results.”

The black-on-white murals, painted with the help of about 20 students, depict other political leaders as well. They include US president Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Designer Karl Lagerfeld is pictured making alterations on an unlikely model – a woman from the village’s folklore troupe – in traditional Bulgarian dress. There are also paintings of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, singer David Bowie, and fictional characters such as Lara Croft, the protagonist of the Tomb Raider video game.

The Piriankovs picked Staro Zhelezare, a village of no more than 500 people, as the place for their murals because of their family ties.

The couple live in Poland, Mrs Piriankov’s homeland, but they visit the village every summer. Mr Piriankov’s father was born in Staro Zhelezare and it is from the family’s ancestral home that the project started. It is where the first murals were drawn last summer.

“At first people reacted with surprise and some alienation,” said Mr Piriankov. “But things settled after a week or so.

“This year for the first time we started saying ‘no’ to some of the requests. It would take us a decade to paint all those who have come forward.” Stefana Gospodinova was among the first to volunteer, and she is depicted holding the reins of her donkey, Todorka, alongside French actress Brigitte Bardot.

“Ventsi [Mr Piriankov] offered to paint her because, like me, she loves animals, so I agreed,” said Mrs Gospodinova, 65, who also cares for hens, pigeons and a pig.

The rest of her animals are painted on the wall of the home of a neighbour across the street. The paintings are a source of joy for Mrs Gospodinova, who lives on a monthly pension of less than US$200 (Dh735) like many older Bulgarians.

Besides private houses, the facades of several public buildings – the museum, post office and the retired people’s club – have also been painted, with the permission of Ilija Tonov, the mayor of the village.

“I agreed almost momentarily,” said Mr Tonov, when asked whether it took him a long time to agree to the project.

“The project has made the village famous. Every day there are people from Bulgaria and abroad who are stopping by to look at the murals and to take photos.”

Some residents, he said, had even painted their walls white, hoping that their houses would be chosen when the artists return next summer.