Belfast Telegraph

Passionate, exotic, like nothing else in Britain... how Grayson Perry depicted Belfast loyalists

By Amanda Ferguson

It's a jolly, glitzy, psychedelic depiction of east Belfast loyalists that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Turner Prize and BAFTA-winning artist Grayson Perry has created a computerised embroidery banner of five men and women from the Newtownards Road as part of a project aimed at exploring British identity.

Last night, viewers of Perry's thought-provoking Channel 4 show exploring identity, Who Are You? were given an insight into the "modern tribe" that is Northern Ireland loyalists.

For the third and final part of the new series, Perry interviewed five Belfast natives, including prominent Union flag protester and PUP member Jonny Harvey.

The 54-year-old artist, broadcaster, transvestite and lecturer said he was spending time with people who are "at a crossroads or crisis in their identity" to capture "an image that attempts to get behind the masks we all wear".

The vibrant banner artwork he came up with of the five on horseback was created after visiting Northern Ireland in April during the centenary of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), described by the artist as a time "when identity is on show".

Perry described the parade as being "like nothing else you've seen anywhere else in Britain".

"This is passion," he added. "It's exotic."

Belfast was portrayed in the programme as a city where tribal identity is painted on the walls: where murals make cultural, religious and political affiliations manifest. Perry's sitters are all from the Protestant, working-class Newtownards Road area of east Belfast.

To get a flavour of their Britishness he accompanied grandmothers Roberta and Jean to a tattoo parlour, where Jean had a Union flag tattooed on her hand.

"Some people wear their heart on their sleeve," she tells Perry.

"I'm wearing my Union Jack on my hand. It's just all about freedom of expression."

During his time in Belfast, viewers saw Perry - who said the loyalists made him question what British identity meant to him - sketch the group at Craigavon House, where he suggested that loyalists from Northern Ireland are seen as "old fashioned".

He also suggested the aesthetic of loyalism is "quite dour" and he got the feeling from the group that their image was "quite grim" so he wanted to create an artistic representation that was "quite jolly" and "almost a little bit glitzy".

To contrast with the "aggressive" and "keep out" nature of loyalist imagery, Perry came up with the banner he claims borrows from and subverts traditional militaristic murals and marchers' banners. "One of the recurring images of the loyalist murals is Prince Billy on his horse so my horse is sort of jolly but a bit knackered," Perry says.

"Because I wanted to give what is quite an austere message in some ways and a message that is routed in a vision of Britain that perhaps doesn't completely gel with the modern 21st century idea of Britain we have nowadays.

"If they want to remain loyal to it they've got to move on too and it's all about embracing what Britain stands for today as much as what Britain stood for in the 1950s."

The work is now part of a special display until March next year. Visit www.npg.org.uk

Background

As part of his examination of modern British identity, artist Grayson Perry met five loyalists from the Newtownards Road area of east Belfast.

The colourful image he came up with both borrows from and subverts the militaristic imagery of loyalist murals and marchers' banners.

It is now on display in London.

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