Grayson Perry – Picturing Identities

Grayson Perry (born 1960) is an English multimedia artist who, among his large oeuvre, specialises in making portraits. His portraits are not, however, simple representations of a face or a body.  He spends considerable time with the person, or group of people that he intends to portray, getting to know them, talking to their friends and colleagues, joining in with their activities and, probably most importantly, thinking before making an image, which might be a piece of pottery, a tapestry or a painting.

Perry is known for his eclectic persona. He is a transvestite (and proud of it) and a television personality. He comments on the contemporary arts scene, and on what he sees as British prejudices. He has made several television programs about making art and portraiture, two of which All Man and Who We are as particularly fascinating. Unfortunately, episode 1 do Who We Are does not seem to be available for download on any source available in the UK, but episodes 2 and 3 are well worth watching.

Who We Are 2 looks at how you can show families in portraits.  He looks at 3 families

  • A religious group who act as an extended family and live together. Here he notes that ritual makes up an important part of their lives, together with the need to be accepting of others and also give things up to act as a single unit. He comments that ‘other people act as a mirror, a reflecting surface’ and that allows you to understand yourself and him to understand the group
    • He made a reliquary casket showing the caring aspect of the family, based on the older form of religious icons

      © Grayson Perry
  • A complex family unit of 2 white gay men raising a mixed-race child. This brought up issues about how you define yourself, both about race and the LGBTQ+ axis, together with the fact that society tends to put people ‘in pockets’ and to tell their story you need to tale the back out again. Identity is formed of multiple layers, a feeling rather than a conscious knowledge, and these need to be explored to make an image
    • He made a pottery jar showing the surrounding and caring aspect of a family

      © Grayson Perry
  • A couple of older people one of whom has Alzheimer’s disease. Here he looked at how the loss of memory affected identity. Taking away the layers, especially when you loose professional accomplishments. Identity then starts to rely on the memories of others – but the carer can also then loose (or change) their own identity, becoming a shadow. Your identity can also be part of being a couple – so if this is lost it changes – Alzheimer’s is described as “ a random bombing raid on the whole of the mind”.
    • He made a funeral urn for memories, composed of multiple photo shattered and cut apart, then recomposed.

Who We Are 3 looks at tribes, groups of people whose identity is bound up in their culture.

  • Belfast people – where portraits that reflect the past violence are still everywhere. Symbols tell a story, might be tattoos, might be clothes. Possibly an ‘old-fashioned view of what Britishness is, and very different from the view in other parts of Britain. Thinking about how identical I’d affected by where you live, especially by where you were born.
    • He made a flag that was in many ways a caricature, wondering if humour could help the situation, but a risk of it being offensive

      © Grayson Perry
  • Obese women – looking at how your identity is fashioned by what other people think of you. How your body can make you an outsider, a negative impact similar to the effect the one that other minority groups get from the world. Being in a group allows acceptance and may improve confidence with a positive effect on mental health.
    • He made a series of statues, playing on the theme of the Willendorf Venus. Objects of beauty.

      © Grayson Perry
  • Deaf people who have their own culture based on a visual not spoken language and which can be very different. Not hearing is often seen as a disability but should be considered a difference. There can be a conflict between cultures especially if you are born into one but live within another. How does that impact on your identity? It becomes an internal (and external) negotiation.
    • He made a very visual and colourful silk screen printing based on a set of hearing aid covers

All Man 1 looked at the identity men give themselves.  He looked closely at the culture of extreme ‘macho’ men including cage fighters. The surface personality may be very brutal but underneath the person may be very gentle. The fighter described “being broken inside” and “its all we have left’ coming from a run-down, working class area with little opportunities for work remaining.  The risk of suicide is high. Men are not encouraged to recognise their feelings. He made a banner that echoed the banners that are still paraded in the villages and towns and also a very ‘frilly’, gentle pot, a very feminine object to commemorate the life (and death) of a man who couldn’t cope and who had killed himself. A masculine banner and a feminine pot. Cloth and pottery. Hard and soft. Both working together to tell the story.

© Grayson Perry


Both series showed the depth of investigation required to produce a meaningful piece of artwork that told a story of the person or group of people and their lives. Emotion is needed, both from the person and the artist. A connection of some sort needs to be formed. To make a good portrait you need to be part detective, part psychologist.  You need to look at what the person shows to the world, and also what is underneath it, consider their lives and the lives of other around them and the culture they live in now together with the one they were born into. Not a simple task.

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