In Paint We Trust: Dreph dives into Coventry history with Ira Aldridge mural

Ira Aldridge mural at the Belgrade Theatre, with the Belgrade Plaza fountain in the foreground

This week, we're thrilled to reveal the second piece of public art to be commissioned as part of street art programme In Paint We Trust

Painted onto a wall outside the Belgrade Theatre overlooking the Belgrade Plaza fountain, the piece is dedicated to Ira Aldridge - an acclaimed actor who, in 1828, became Britain's first Black theatre manager when he was handed the keys to the Coventry Theatre. At the time, he was not yet 21. 

Born in New York City at a time when slavery was still legal in the US and across the British Empire, Aldridge was a prominent activist in the abolitionist movement. After moving to Britain to pursue his acting career, he took the theatre world by storm with his powerful Shakespeare performances, taking on roles including Romeo, Hamlet and Othello. 

During his time in Coventry, his passionate speeches inspired local people to petition parliament to abolish slavery. In 2017, a blue plaque was unveiled in the city centre to honour his achievements as part of a special event run by the Belgrade Theatre and the University of Warwick. 

The artist behind this spectacular, 20ft mural is Dreph (Neequaye Dsane), a street artist specialising in large-scale portrait and human figure paintings. Dreph aims to depict his subjects as present, empowered and self-aware, and his work has appeared around the world including in high-profile exhibitions at the likes of the Tate Modern. 

Dreph said: “It was an honour to make a piece of work that amplifies this fascinating story. Many of the passers-by that I spoke to did not know who he was or his connection to the city. So, it was great to be able to bring awareness of his life and achievements.” 

The mural is inspired by an original portrait painting of Ira Aldridge as Othello, painted by Henry Perronet Briggs in 1830, which is now part of the National Portrait Gallery collection. Find out more on Dreph's website. 

For the Belgrade Theatre, the story has an even greater resonance, since the story of Ira Aldridge was a source of inspiration for the recruitment of their three Co-Artistic Directors for 2021, who are overseeing the theatre's programme of home-produced shows for our City of Culture year. 

Hamish Glen, the Belgrade's Artistic Director, said: “We are very proud to be involved in Coventry BID and the City of Culture Trust’s ‘In Paint We Trust’ project, and are hugely impressed with Dreph’s painting of Ira Aldridge.

“Aldridge’s story of being given control of the Coventry Theatre as a very young man in 1828 was the inspiration for our radical project to “hand over the keys” to the Belgrade to the next generation of theatre-makers for UK City of Culture 2021. Coventry has a proud history of radicalism, activism and reinvention that we hope to celebrate, and to build on throughout the year.”

In Paint We Trust is produced by Street Art Strategy with support from Coventry City of Culture Trust and Coventry Business Improvement District. Local, nationally and internationally renowned street artists will bring Coventry to life with colourful, imaginative and bespoke pieces which will appear in unexpected places throughout the city centre, encouraging people to explore their local area. 

Mel Smith from the Street Art Strategy team said: “Watching this mural develop over two days has been such a beautiful experience. We have had brilliant conversations with people passing by – sharing Ira’s amazing story, information about Dreph and the plans we have for the In Paint We Trust programme. It’s surprising how many people have never heard of Ira Aldridge, we are hoping this mural will change that. His story is inspiring and needs to be heard.” 

Adrian Woolford, Assistant Manager at Coventry BID, commented: “It was fantastic to watch the mural come to life as Dreph worked on it over the three days he was in Coventry – even the wet weather couldn’t dampen the spirits!

"The fact that it features Ira Aldridge and highlights his links to the city, means this piece of In Paint We Trust artwork is particularly significant and is already proving to be a great talking point for people, as they’ve been intrigued to learn more about who he is and what he did. Throughout the installation the Street Art Strategy team were on hand to give passers-by an overview of the artwork and the artist.”

Chenine Bhathena, Creative Director at Coventry City of Culture 2021, commented: “This is a monumental artwork presenting Ira Aldridge, the first black man to run a theatre in England back in the 19th century during the struggle to abolish slavery.

"His story is of a brave, brilliant, artistic young man who against the odds travelled from America to London, and was welcomed and given the keys to Coventry Theatre.  His story is one of hope and courage. He represents Coventry’s role as a city of welcome, of sanctuary and of harmony."

Check out our video below to see Dreph and the Street Art Strategy team in action at the Belgrade Theatre. 

In Paint We Trust: Dreph paints Ira Aldridge