With Britain going through something of an identity crisis at present, the timing of Grayson Perry’s Channel 4 series Who Are You? which focused on the theme of identity in modern Britain was opportune. ‘We all wear masks. Sometimes it takes an artist to see behind them’ was the strapline for the series, and by selecting people who are, in his words are ‘constantly negotiating their identity’, Grayson gave us a challenging portrait of the complex make-up of contemporary Britain that could easily have been called Who We Are.
So when I was in London recently, I thought I’d pop into the National Portrait Gallery where the works that Perry created – tapestries, sculptures and ceramics – in response to the people featured in the series are on display until next spring. Instead of the works being displayed together in one gallery, Perry has taken the mildly subversive approach of having the works distributed throughout the first-floor contemporary portrait galleries. This encourages the viewer, aided by rather jolly map, to meander through the rooms in a sort of treasure hunt, the object being to find the works, each marked with a distinctive Who Are You? logo. It also leads to some cheeky juxtapositions, with portraits of a transsexual, a gay couple, a sufferer from Alzheimer’s, three fat women, and a disgraced politician dotted among strait-laced portraits of colonial explorers, generals, diplomats and other examples of the great and good from Victorian and Edwardian times.
Entering the first floor galleries, it soon became clear what a national phenomenon Grayson Perry has become. Around each artwork a crowd would be gathered, enthusiastically sizing up the work or discussing its pros and cons. With his two series for Channel 4 and last year’s popular Reith lectures for the BBC, Perry has probably done more than anyone to spread the idea that art can be relevant – and fun. Apart from Perry’s own engaging personality and his knack of being able to mix easily with people of all kinds, I think the reason this work engages people is that it provide a snapshot of contemporary Britain. He excels as a chronicler of human life; he’s a storyteller to rival Hogarth, revealing both the comedy and the tragedy of our lives.
Whereas Perry’s previous series for Channel 4 – All in the Best Possible Taste – and the set of tapestries based on it were concerned with class, Who Are You? and the resulting portraits focus on aspects of personal or group identity such as race, disability, gender and sexuality. Watching the TV series, and then looking at these portraits it’s apparent that there is a keen intelligence at work here.
In the exhibition guide, Perry explains that each artefact has been the result of time he spent with people who were ‘at a crossroads or crisis in their identity’. Each portrait was his attempt to capture ‘an image that attempts to get behind the masks we all wear’:
The fourteen portraits in this exhibition, displayed among the Gallery’s Collection, are not primarily concerned with what the subjects look like. They are images about the nature of identity, snapshots taken from the narratives of people’s lives. Our sense of ourselves feels constant but our identity is an ongoing performance that is changed and adapted by our experiences and circumstances. We feel like we are the same person we were years before, but we are not. As my subjects I have chosen individuals, families or groups that somehow represent some important facets of the nature of our identity. I have attempted to portray the character of the identity journey they are facing. They have changed religion or gender, they have lost some of their physical or mental faculties, they have lost status, they belong to a group that is hoping it will be seen differently by society. All of them, I thought, show us something of the negotiations we are all involved in, unconsciously or otherwise, around who we feel we are and how we are seen. For most of us, most of the time, our identity works for us so we do not question it. But when it does not feel right, or is under threat, then we are suddenly made very aware of how central and vital our identity is.
Grayson Perry, Map of Days (detail)
The trail starts with a self-portrait, though it’s not a literal depiction of himself. In Map of Days, Perry has produced a work – in the form of a map – that examines his own identity. Grayson presents his mind as a fortified town and inside the walls is a crazy mind map filled with concepts and contradictions. Disturbingly, Grayson has left the centre of the map blank – a clear, open space. He told one interviewer:
‘I wanted to do a self-portrait as well. So I sought a metaphor. I wanted to make it more of a musing on the nature of identity and the self. I thought the walled city was a good metaphor. If you look in the middle, there is no heart. There’s a tiny figure kicking a can along the road. On the can it says, ‘A sense of self.’ He laughs. ‘It’s fairly bleak. There is no self.’
Grayson Perry, The Comfort Blanket
There’s one more general piece before we seek out the individual portraits. It’s a huge tapestry, called The Comfort Blanket, which Perry describes as ‘a portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant banknote, things we love, and love to hate’. As on a banknote, the Queen is the centrepiece, while around her Perry has woven together emblematic examples of the British national character, including curry, fish and chips, the Magna Carta, suffragettes, tolerance, liberty, and ‘a Nice Cuppa Tea’ in a decorative and colourful swirl. It’s a bit like Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, except that it includes more problematic elements of the national character, such as the North-South divide, class division, rain and moaning.
Grayson Perry, The Comfort Blanket (details)
Perry has described his subjects as ‘individuals, families or groups that somehow represent some important facets of the nature of our identity’, so what’s the disgraced politician Chris Huhne doing here? (If you have forgotten, Huhne fell from grace when his wife revealed that he had asked her to take the blame for a speeding offence so that he did not lose his driving licence. He resigned from the cabinet and was subsequently jailed for perverting the course of justice.)
Huhne is here to represent what Perry calls Default Man. He explained to the New Statesman what he means by the term:
When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.
Perry has represented him in the form of a cracked vase. In a frieze that normally would contain geometric triglyphs, Huhne’s face is repeated alongside symbols of phalluses and speed cameras. After creating the vase, Perry broke it and then had it repaired using the traditional Japanese method called kintsugi that emphasizes the repair by highlighting the joins using a lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold.
The logic behind this approach was revealed in the TV series when Perry expressed his astonishment at the man’s chutzpah:
I had interviewed him before he went to jail. He was there as a powerful white male who potentially was going to lose some of that power. I was interested in what effect prison and that condemnation would have on his confidence and identity.
But Perry discerned no change at all. ‘There’s not a flicker. I was fascinated and appalled.’ He attributed it to ‘a class thing’. ‘So to see someone with that chutzpah and bulletproof, Teflon confidence close up is fascinating. And sort of horrifying.’
Grayson Perry, The Huhne Vase
I wanted to include Chris Huhne because he represents what I call Default Man: a white, middle class, middle aged, heterosexual man, an identity group that hides in plain sight. I have represented Chris as a series of repeat patterns. This is a riposte to the common Default Man’s defence that he is an ‘individual’ and his achievements and behaviour have nothing to do with a group identity. I have smashed the vase and repaired it with gold to symbolise that vulnerability might be an asset in relationships for such a person.
Grayson Perry, The Ashford Hijab
The Ashford Hijab is a silkscreen print depicting Kayleigh Khosravi, a white working-class Muslim convert, with her children as they move away from what Perry describes as the ‘temple of consumerism’ of the Ashford Designer Outlet Centre to the focal point of the Muslim faith in Mecca. Perry elaborates:
Perhaps surprisingly to some, Kayleigh represents the most likely group to convert to Islam in the UK. What does Islam offer to a young white woman in her twenties? The answer, I found, appears to be a refuge from nagging consumer pressures and the constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women that is pervasive in Western society. Conversion also offers a strong and supportive sisterhood within the congregation of the mosque. I have portrayed Kayleigh and her children on the symbolic path from the temple of consumerism that is the Ashford Designer Outlet Centre to the focal point of the Muslim faith at Mecca.
Grayson Perry, The Idealised Heterosexual Couple
Two glazed pots represent the modern British family. The first, entitled The Idealised Heterosexual Couple, shows divorcees who live apart but whose family members continue to see each other regularly through their love of ballroom dancing. Perry explains:
The Rogers are a family that centres on ballroom dancing. Father Colin is constantly ferrying daughters Jenna, Amy and Charlotte to classes; mother Janey competes alongside them. They spend hours and hours of exhausting practice perfecting a glitzy formalised version of the boy-girl relationship. The irony is that Colin and Janey are divorced and he lives a few miles away but dancing means that he sees more of his daughters than many a live-in father.
Grayson Perry, Modern Family
The second pot is called Modern Family, and represents Jack and John, white male parents who have adopted a child of mixed ethnicity. Jack and John are gay men, both white and living in a rural part of southern England. Three years ago they adopted Shea, a mixed-British boy. Jack has said, ‘We are a modern family. We don’t confirm to the norm, even the norm for adoptive families. In many ways we represent what the world is becoming.’ For Perry, the threesome represented ‘a complex mixture of identity issues’:
Because they are not a typical nuclear family Jack and John are consequently very aware of the process of good parenting. I think that they teach us an important lesson: we should not take it for granted that we naturally know how to love and raise a child well, it needs thought and practice to get it right.
Jack was pleased with the pot:
It says something about being fragile but with a possibility of immortality, like all of our identities, no matter how constant they are. Even though our existence is impermanent, we leave something of our identity behind with our family and friends.
Grayson Perry, I am a Man
Another excellent piece is the tender I am a Man, a small brass figure that references some of Perry’s favourite sculptures, the Benin bronzes of West Africa. It depicts Alex White, a young female-to-male transsexual from Bromley, who featured in the first episode of the TV series. There was a brilliant scene in which Alex returned with Grayson to Sedgehill School, the Catford school that he attended as a girl. Confident and liberated, Alex talked to students at the school, a symbol for me of how at least some in the education system are willing to afford teenagers the intelligence to deal with complex and challenging issues.
In the scene, one teenager raised the issue of conformity: ‘If everyone else is doing it, you succumb to the pressure’, while another boy said he hadn’t had sex and he didn’t want to yet. ‘I don’t need to have sex to prove I’m a man.’ Nobody sniggered. It was as if, wrote Yvonne Roberts in the Observer, these young people were articulating an understanding of how gender and conditioning undermine a genuine sense of identity, causing pain and dislocation in the process. Roberts commented:
In a now famous 2008 essay, Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit refers to (some) men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t and why women allow themselves to be silenced. Perry isn’t a “new man” in his capacity to know when to shut up. What he understands is that being a man today – or a woman – is organic, not fixed, an ongoing fragile building of identity, ever more difficult in the onslaught from the commercial market. Perhaps such insight comes from his experience as a working-class boy, who liked to wear girls’ clothes and still hold on to his sanity and his “maleness”.
Grayson Perry, The Jesus Army Money Box
In the TV series, one of the settings in which Perry was less at ease was when he spent time in a house shared by members of the Jesus Army, a Christian group that works with the homeless. The Money Box is a ceramic in the form of a medieval ‘chasse’ – a small chest which would have contained a Christian holy relic. Grayson explains his thinking here:
The Jesus Army are a Christian group that works a lot with homeless people. They live in ‘families’ in shared houses, pool their money and sometimes wear military-style clothes and Day-Glo red crucifixes. They live a quite ascetic existence with no television or alcohol, but have a strong community. Much of the art I love comes out of the Christian tradition so I was quite disappointed at the prosaically modern visual culture the Jesus Army surrounded themselves with. I have placed them on one of my favourite categories of antique Christian art, a medieval-style ‘chasse’ – a small enamelled chest containing a holy relic.
Grayson Perry, Line of Departure
Line of Departure is another tapestry, created in the style of an Afghan rug. In a room surrounded by portraits of Lord Baden-Powell, Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and soldiers such as Lord Kitchener, it shows three British wounded war veterans:
The title of this piece comes from a conversation I had with one of the three wounded veterans I have depicted. Stewart Hill showed me a photograph of a troop of soldiers crossing a shallow river in Afghanistan. It was the last photo taken before they were attacked, when he received a head wound that would change his life. Stewart pointed at the photo: ‘Just beyond there was the line of departure, the starting point of the operation, the boundary between ground we control and that controlled by the enemy.’ I have designed this tapestry in the style of an Afghan War rug. It shows Stewart Hill, Karl Hinett and Peter Dunning crossing back over another battle line on their return to the challenge of civillan life as a wounded soldier.
Grayson Perry, The Earl of Essex
I must admit I’d never heard of Rylan Clark. The Earl of Essex is a portrait of former X Factor contestant Rylan Clark, which Perry has painted in the style of a 17th Century miniature portrait:
Rylan Clark came fifth in the talent show The X-Factor in 2012 and won Celebrity Big Brother a few weeks later in January 2013. Now presenting Big Brother’s Bit on the Side. Rylan has become famous in a very short period of time. In some ways celebrities are like the aristocracy of our times and I have portrayed him on a miniature in the style of the Elizabethan court. Rylan’s striking looks brought to mind a dandyish nobleman as portrayed by Nicholas Hilliard. The fame Rylan pursued comes at a cost in that it unbalances relationships with strangers and friends alike. The miniature implies a lost intimacy and also echoes the smart phone screen – the natural home of the twenty-first~century celebrity portrait.
Grayson Perry, The Loyalist Banner
In one episode of the TV series, Perry considered ’21st century tribes’. Arguing that although we live in an age of individualism, the urge to band together with like-minded souls is as strong as ever, he met with three examples of such tribal identity.
In Belfast he found a city where tribal identity is painted on the walls: the famous murals make cultural, religious and political affiliations manifest. There, Perry met a group that takes allegiance to Britain as its defining characteristic – five Loyalists, all from the Protestant, working-class Newtonards Road area of East Belfast. We saw him join Jean and Roberta as they had Union Jacks tattooed on their hands (‘Some people wear their heart on their sleeve,’ Jean told Perry. ‘I’m wearing my Union Jack on my hand. It’s just all about freedom of expression.’), and watched as Jason, Jonathan, Roberta and Jean took part in a march to commemorate the founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force. These encounters resulted in the psychedelic colours of the banner that depicts the five Loyalists on horseback, asserting ‘Britain is Best’.
Grayson Perry, Melanie, Georgina and Sarah
Grayson’s second tribe in that episode were contestants in the Miss Plus Size International competition. Here was a group whose identity had been forged through a struggle for acceptance – from others and from themselves – as larger women. Taking part in the competition was the first time many of them had acknowledged and celebrated their size – it was, in Grayson’s words, ‘a mass coming-out experience’. He was struck by their confidence and pride.
Grayson Perry, Melanie, Georgina and Sarah
Melanie, Georgina and Sarah is a piece that offers a comment on an identity group in British society that is increasing in size (sorry!). He has taken the familiar outlines of goddesses of fertility, with their big stomachs and generous curves, and subverted these for the modern age. In prehistoric times, these symbols of fertility were highly desirable, but to modern eyes these figures seem overweight, even obese. In what I think was my favourite piece in the exhibition, Perry has presented Melanie, Georgina and Sarah as ‘three woman large and proud of their size’:
Three women, big and proud, who want their size to be seen as a positive. I have portrayed them as vaguely antique hieratic figures adorned with images, old and new, of female ‘perfection’ and food. In the history of sculpture, female forms such as these were often seen as fertility goddesses to be prayed to for children and plentiful harvests. Nowadays we are more likely to see a growing health problem.
Grayson Perry, Deafness a Culture not a Disability
Perry’s final ‘tribal’ portrait is of a group of deaf people who see their deafness not as a disability but as an enriching and rewarding identity. Paula and Tomato, who are both deaf, were enthusiastically congratulated by the deaf community when it was revealed that their children were also hearing-impaired. ‘It is misunderstood,’ Paula explains, ‘because people don’t believe a deaf culture exists.’ Using sign-language and seeing themselves as a linguistic minority rather than disabled reclaims deafness as an identity. But it has caused problems with Paula and her Jewish parents as she prefers to identify with deaf culture over any sort of religious affinity. Grayson found inspiration for the portrait in Tomato’s punk-style hearing aid covers:
Of all the identity groups I encountered, the deaf seemed the most challenging. Their insistence that deafness is a culture to be celebrated rather than a disability is unsettling for many people. I was looking for inspiration as to how to portray them when Tomato, the face on the thumb in this poster, showed me his punk, spiky hearing aid covers. In a flash I knew how I would portray them in a genre that referred to their political energy. I have depicted the group as a new wave rock band, perhaps a little mischievously, as I went to one of their parties and it was very quiet, with everyone talking furiously in sign language.
Grayson Perry, Memory Jar
And then there’s the issue of when we lose our identity: one of the most moving segments of the TV series was devoted to Christopher, who has Alzheimer’s. The incurable disease is destroying his memory, robbing not just him but also his partner Veronica of their shared memories of their life together. It is robbing him, effectively, of his identity. On this vase, Perry represents Christopher’s memory as shards, fragments from the couple’s photo album jumbled togetherand gleefully shredded by a demonic figure called Altzy.