“Grayson Perry: Who Are You?” Brings True Feeling To National Portrait Gallery

There are museums you visit to be blown away by something new and different, but London’s National Portrait Gallery is typically not one of them. The first of its’ kind dating back to 1856, a tour through these hallowed halls is more about sharing a picturesque afternoon with Britain’s most famous faces, than being left breathless at the heart-wrenching potential of art. Well, not anymore.

With the onset of Grayson Perry: Who Are You?I can comfortably say that for the moment there is no house of art in London quite as emotionally charged as the good old NPR.

54-year-old Grayson Perry,who won the 2003 Turner Prize, is of course the mastermind behind the exhibition, as well as the Channel 4 television series of the same name (speaking of which, we highly recommend a binge-watch for those who haven’t yet imbibed).

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Through mixed mediums from tapestry, to bronze, to ceramic jars, the artist, pictured above as his alter-ego, Claire, succeeds in a raw and honest portrayal of humanity that I’ve yet to encounter in any other art exhibition.

“Memory Jar,” for example, tells the story of long-married couple Christopher and Veronica Devas. Christopher has Alzheimer’s Disease, so much of his memory is fading, whilst his Veronica can only look on in vain and watch their shared memories disappear from his brain. So how does Perry illustrate this highly personal and tragic loss? A demon with sharp scissors tears through their memories snip by snip… I think the whole room heard my gasp.

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Another piece in the exhibition, entitled “Ashford Hijab” tells the story of white, 20-something Brit, Kayleigh Khosravi’s, decision to convert to Islam.

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A pricey list of designer brands represents the materialism Kayleigh feels she was born into, and a portrait of her wearing hijab shows us who she finally chose to be. This controversial journey is gracefully recorded by Perry on none other than a hijab — the unmistakable symbol of a devoted Muslim woman. Truly powerful stuff.

Similarly forceful, screen-print, “The Deaf,” is about the desire of the deaf community for deafness to be celebrated by society as a vibrant culture instead of a crippling disability. By depicting the group on a neon green poster, as if they they are a star-studded rock band, Perry succeeds in challenging societal stereotypes and makes a step towards correcting them.

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What makes this show especially brilliant is that the NPR has cleverly interspersed the Who Are You? pieces throughout their own permanent collection, rather than keeping them together in one room. This leads the viewer on a treasure hunt through the gallery, searching, eyes wide, for the one artwork in the room that stands out from the rest.

And once you find that work of art that brims with soul, you’re in for a powerful treat.

– India Irving

Grayson Perry: Who Are You? is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through March 15, 2015; St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE; Open Daily 10AM – 6PM (9PM Thursdays & Fridays); Admission: FREE

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