Grayson Perry examines the “slippery” nature of identity in ‘Who Are You?’

Disgraced MP Chris Huhne, a female-to-male transsexual, a white Muslim convert and reality TV star Rylan Clark are among the subjects of a new set of portraits by Grayson Perry exploring the nature of identity.

Who Are You? is both a Channel 4 series and exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with a trail of 14 artworks dotted around the permanent collection.

These “snapshots taken from the narratives of people’s lives” were created after Perry spent several days with each subject – “their forms came out of my encounters with the subjects and their environment.”

The Turner Prize-winning artist chose people whose identity has altered; by changing religion or gender, losing their status or their faculties like Alzheimer’s sufferer Christopher Devas, or limbs like the wounded war vets depicted on an Afghan rug in The Line of Departure.

The artworks include A Map of Days self-portrait showing the Islington artist as a highly detailed fortified town with a blank core – “a metaphor for the complexity of identity”.

The Earl of Essex (pictured right) depicts “the indomitable and brilliant Rylan Clark” in a tiny oval gold miniature – an example of how celebrities are the new aristocracy – and The Ashford Hijab (pictured top) is a silk screenprint scarf showing Muslim convert Kayleigh and her children on the road from consumerist western culture to Mecca.

Among the most provocative pieces is the Huhne vase depicting patterns of penises, the Lib Dem MP’s personalised number plate and his face on a pot that Perry smashed in his studio then repaired.

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“The Huhne hubris. I chose willies because that’s what got him into trouble, putting this where he shouldn’t have been, and I smashed it and mended it with gold to honour our vulnerability, that’s what makes us attractive. Being vulnerable, we show ourselves to be affected by a person or situation, make a raw patch where true emotion passes through.”

Perry found Huhne confident, articulate, media savvy and unappealingly defensive.

“It’s all food (to creativity) even if it’s resistance, in his trying to defend himself I am seeing his defences, but it’s not endearing.

“The white, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual man – I call default man – is the zero longitude of identities against which all others are measured. He hides in plain sight and is therefore quite a challenge to unpick. They all say, ‘I got here through my own efforts not because I am affiliated to an elite tribe’ and talk as if it’s an aberration when things go wrong.

“My use of repeated patterns on the vase was to show you are one of many.”

Single mum Kayleigh Khosravi, who has converted to Islam, represents a search for certainty and retreat from the pressures of Western consumerism and female sexuality, says Perry, who often appears as his transvestite alter ego Claire.

He believes our identity isn’t fixed but “a lifelong, ongoing shifting performance that is changed and adapted by our experiences and circumstances”.

“We are not the same person all the time but have a cast of identity characters like a troupe or repertory company who come forward as we need each persona.”

He adds: “Identity seems to me a slippery term, by its very nature a narrative we tell ourselves: the story about who we really are.

“Families are the crucible, the first foundations of our identity but it’s an accretion, a series of images and experiences that build up over the years and make us ourselves.

“People like to think they have a handle on who they are but we are all just a collection of baggage and there is no-one holding the luggage.”

NPG director Sandy Nairne, who lives in Kentish Town, said the work explores “not just the relationship between appearance and the person, but the questions that sit behind that, the complexity of identity”.

“Who Are You? is probably the question we all as we look in the mirror every morning, but it’s a question that’s pretty pertinent in a portrait gallery.”

Who Are You? runs at the NPG until March 15. Photographs of the artworks courtesy of Grayson Perry and the Victoria Miro Gallery.

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