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Here’s what King Shaka Zulu might look like if he was alive today

Graphic designer Becca Saladin breathes new life into historical figures by giving them modern makeovers

15 July 2020 - 00:00 By Sanet Oberholzer
This statue in London served as the 'template' for graphic designer Becca Saladin's portrait of a modern-day Shaka Zulu (see below).
This statue in London served as the 'template' for graphic designer Becca Saladin's portrait of a modern-day Shaka Zulu (see below).
Image: Jacob Truedson Demitz for Ristesson History via Wikimedia Commons

Ever stared at an artwork of a historical figure and wondered what they might look like if they were alive today? Becca Saladin, a graphic designer with a love of archaeology, certainly has — and decided to use her artistic talents to find out.

Saladin gives the prominent characters depicted in old paintings and statues a modern makeover by dressing the subjects in contemporary clothes, giving them sleek hairstyles, and sometimes adding a touch of make-up. The results, which she shares on her Instagram account, Royalty_Now, are quite extraordinary.

Some of the many noteworthy royals she’s tackled so far are the ill-fated Tudor and French queens Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette, Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, and our very own King Shaka.

We spoke to Saladin to find out more:

Why did you start your Instagram page?

I started the page as a hobby because I was personally curious about this sort of thing. I think most people have looked at a portrait or statue at some point in their life and wondered what that person really looked like.

I wanted to breathe new life into historical figures and make them more relatable to us today, which is why I give them modern hairstyles and put them in modern dress.

What’s the most challenging part of doing these transformations?

One of the most challenging aspects is finding portraits of rulers that will work for what I do. For instance, the portrait I did of [Mongolian Emperor] Genghis Khan was really challenging because [the artwork I was working from was] quite stylised and painted in a flat style. It's easiest to work from portraits that are highly realistic to begin with.

Also portraits of some of the world’s greatest figures simply do not exist or haven't survived. 

How do you go about creating these portraits?

I find stock images that have the attributes that I want such as hairstyle and texture, clothing I think the figure might wear, and general skin tone. I need to find those where the angle of the head and neck of the subject matches that of the original artwork as closely as possible.

I put the images in Photoshop and use the original portrait as a template. I often source features from other photos to replace the eyes, nose and mouth, and then I digitally paint on top of it to blend it all together. The end result is usually a mashup of five or six photos.

How long does it take to finish a portrait on average?

I would say three to four hours.

Why did you decide to make a portrait of Shaka Zulu?

I received many requests from my followers to make a portrait of him.

Was he a challenging character to recreate?

I had a hard time finding a contemporary likeness of him, so I had to use a modern statue. Unfortunately, that means the likeness probably isn't very accurate, but I think a lot of people like seeing and imagining him [as a modern figure] anyway. 

[In the statue] he has very masculine features. It was a challenge to find features from other photos that fit with his, so I had to do more digital painting than I usually do. 

What’s your favourite portrait so far?

My favourite is my most recent portrait of Anne Boleyn. She is my favourite historical figure, and hers was actually the first portrait I created for my Instagram page, so I do new versions of her from time to time.