As one of society’s oldest art forms, portraiture was traditionally used to convey the power, importance and even wealth of a sitter. Now, one of Britain’s most successful rappers wants to help “change the narrative” around the art form – by shining a spotlight on contemporary heroes instead.
In a new six-part series for the BBC, Tinie Tempah, who has had seven No 1 singles in the UK, will match members of the public with “extraordinary stories” to a selection of celebrated portrait artists who will then capture their likeness.
“Historically, portraits have been reserved for high society. We wanted to put a spotlight on our modern-day heroes,” said Tinie – real name Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu . “Chances are they’re not going to be elite, upper-class people. They’re going to be regular, everyday people who have done something inspirational or courageous.”
Each episode of Extraordinary Portraits follows the process behind capturing the sitters, using different mediums of art – from underwater photography to street art. They culminate in Tinie and the artist unveiling the final piece to the sitter and their family and friends.
One of the “heroes” featured in the programme is Patrick Hutchinson, a personal trainer from south London who was photographed carrying an injured English Defence League member to safety during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2020 – an image that was hailed as a symbol of unity and humanity. Capturing Hutchinson will be Dale Grimshaw, a painter and street artist who will use a combination of spray cans and oil paint for the portrait.
“I remember when that image surfaced of [Hutchinson] carrying that guy out of the protests, and how commendable it was,” Tinie said. “When we revealed the portrait to him and his family, his mum was in tears. It was such a nice moment, to see him being celebrated in a certain type of way.”
According to the rapper, a lot of the sitters felt an immense sense of impostor syndrome. “There was a feeling of, ‘wow, I never ever thought something like this would have been done for me’. So I wanted to level the playing field a bit.”
The other individuals featured in the programme are Georgia and Melissa Laurie, twins who survived a near fatal crocodile attack while swimming in a lagoon in Mexico; Cee Cee, a model with albinism; Mark Ormrod, a former Royal Marine who survived an explosion during a foot patrol in Afghanistan in 2007; Catrin Pugh, a survivor of a bus crash that left her with burns across 95% of her body; and Alec Burrough, an 88-year-old dairy farmer from Devon.
Tinie, who has won Mobos, Brits and an Ivor Novello award, was one of 37 black British stars celebrated in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2018 – with their portraits now part of the gallery’s primary collection. He recalled the “immense pride, inclusion and acknowledgment” he felt after seeing his picture go up in such a revered institution.
The rapper, who has a passion for art collecting, said taking part in shows such as this had allowed him to express a different side of himself, which was typically quite hard to do as a rapper. “It’s a way to express my appetite for art that I can’t do in my lyrics,” he said.
Suzy Klein, the head of BBC Arts said: “Portraiture has traditionally been a way of commemorating the figures we think of as significant or powerful. What makes Extraordinary Portraits different is that we shift the focus to everyday heroes – shining a light on incredible people whose bravery, courage and good deeds make them truly special, and who we feel deserve to be celebrated.”
Extraordinary Portraits starts on BBC One on 14 February.