This week the National Portrait Gallery in London unveiled the latest addition to their collection, a powerful portrait of Grime artist Stormzy by Mark Mattock. On his head are the letters HITH – which stand for ‘heavy is the head’ (that wears the crown) – in a gothic font that recalls early Renaissance devotional painting. The portrait was also chosen as the album artwork for Stormzy’s upcoming album of the same name.
The rapper is shown holding a stab vest emblazoned with a Union Jack in his hands. The vest was of course made for Stormzy by Banksy, for his set at Glastonbury this year, in which the star famously enjoined the audience to chant ‘Fuck Boris’ after an impassioned speech about the current political climate.
With this work we can see the importance of the vest to Stormzy, and its power as a symbol of a ‘broken Britain’ which has left millions of people struggling with poverty, structural racism and a lack of opportunities. Now a part of music and art history, an edition of the stab vest was recently sold in Banksy’s Gross Domestic Product online shop for just £850 after being exhibited at an installation of the same name in Croydon, Stormzy’s birthplace, with the description: ‘A version of the “John Bull” English gents waistcoat updated for modern times. This customised body armour is capable of stopping bullets up to .45 calibre and is fully stab proof.’
Commenting on the acquisition, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, described the portrait as a ‘contemporary intervention’ into the traditional collection. “Stormzy has undoubtedly had a significant influence on British culture today,” he explained, “both through his music and work with minority groups and young people, and we hope our visitors will enjoy the juxtaposition of this new work with historic paintings of influential figures from the Victorian era, from politicians, royalty and radicals to artists, sporting heroes and singers.”