Meet the artists weaving history into the costumes of the Notting Hill Carnival

London’s Notting Hill Carnival may be postponed for the second year running but its spirit continues to thrive. We meet the artists keeping it alive through the stories threaded into the iconic costumes.

The Notting Hill Carnival ordinarily takes place in London over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

Photograph by Alamy
Published 27 Aug 2021, 06:10 BST, Updated 31 Aug 2021, 12:21 BST

“A feather’s a feather’s a feather,” says Clary Salandy, her brow furrowed behind her face mask as she eyes a photograph on the wall. “I find them a little dull.”

In the picture, dancers frozen in time wear costumes alive with plumes, ecstasy written across their glittery faces. The fronds add height and motion — it’s clear they’re a dramatic appendage. But for Clary, a renowned costume designer at Mahogany Carnival Arts, their proliferation at today’s carnivals doesn’t represent the spirit of handmade costume-making — artistry that’s helped to propel London’s Notting Hill Carnival to international acclaim.

“It’s the dancers’ form of expression and I respect their choice. But if I have to use them, I’ll create them myself, and make sure that each one is unique,” she says. “For a mas [carnival] character, you have to explore and transform materials — it’s the only way to be imaginative and innovative. We want people to be surprised by what they see.”

And surprised I am. Arriving at her studio on Harlesden High Street is like discovering Narnia in northwest London. Hidden behind the shop’s grey, dust-cloaked shutters is an interior that’s wall-to-wall frolic and fantasy — a menagerie of 10ft (or taller) costumes crafted into the shapes of animals both real and mythical. Snarling pink dragons cascade from the ceiling; yellow lions seem poised to spring, teeth bared, from beneath tables, and all manner of other lurid creatures loll over chairs and cackle in the corners. It’s like I’m there at the Notting Hill Carnival — at my usual spot on the junction of Cambridge Gardens and Portobello Road — cheering on the mas bands as they roll past in a blaze of song and dance.

“This one here was created by the master of wire, Lawrence Noel,” Clary says, pointing to a wire-frame ‘head pack’ suspended above us. “He brought the first ever carnival band of costumes to Notting Hill Carnival back in the 1960's.” 

The huge bonnet resembles the flamboyant crest of a bird. As Clary points to intricate markings made by tools and delicate twists in the wiring, it’s clear the headgear was made entirely by hand. Lawrence, she tells me, was a proponent of traditional costume-making — and this particular Trinidadian method of using aluminium wire to create frames was itself inspired by South American and Native American traditions.

Clary Salandy is a co-founder of Mahogany Carnival Arts, a costume-design studio based in northwest London.

Photograph by Nora Wallaya

“Costume-makers who arrived in the 1950s from the Caribbean were working with aluminium — the material that was available then. If you came over in the ’70s, like I did, it was fibreglass and foam that were being used,” Clary says, gesturing to her pieces, propped up around the room. “Foam is a great material to use — it’s flexible, so everybody can use it easily — and it opened doors to people who wanted to create costumes in a structural way, who couldn’t work with aluminium.”

Across one wall are pinned paintings of Clary’s costume ideas alongside the names of themes — ‘Oriental Dance’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Caribbean Spirit’, to name a few.

“Every year, there’s a new theme for Notting Hill Carnival,” says Clary. “Last year, as the carnival was held virtually, the theme for the smaller events we ran instead of the parade was ‘The Time for Change is Now’, to honour the murder of George Floyd. This year, it’s ‘Be the Light’.”

I spot a mannequin modelling a large, round, black-and-white costume: a football, decorated with the faces of the three England team members, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, who earlier this year found themselves the victims of vitriolic racism following England’s defeat in the EURO 2020 final.

“I’ve created this for a children’s Carnival gala — a smaller showcase that’ll take place instead of the main parade,” Clary explains. “This set of football-inspired costumes serves as a reminder to our children that they themselves are our leaders to a better world. It’s important that the kids focus on the positive contribution of the footballers rather than dwelling on the negative. And those boys [the footballers] were such an inspiration to us all.”

A tribute to ancestry

Clary isn’t the only costume-maker whose creations are rich with story. During a Zoom call from his Newcastle upon Tyne studio, Alan Vaughan sums up his approach to creating the elaborate costumes of the moko jumbies. The towering robed figures traditionally parade through the streets of Port of Spain during the annual Trinidad Carnival. But since 2015 — when Alan launched a new outfit in the UK as a counterpart to his Trinidad crew, Moko Somõkõw — they’ve appeared at Notting Hill Carnival, too.

“I see what I do as creating a living sculpture; a living painting that moves,” he explains. “Creating a costume isn’t like making a set of clothes. I wait for my ideas to crystallise — which can take years. While constructing a costume, I need to consider the structure and the silhouette. I need to consider the way they’ll move with the music. The big costumes can be crafted from literally thousands of pieces of fabric.”

The moko jumbies are towering robed figures that traditionally parade through the streets of Port of Spain during the annual Trinidad Carnival.

Photograph by Jason C Audain

At carnival, each moko jumbie is held aloft by 6ft wooden stilts streaming with shimmering ribbons and dressed in swathes of vibrant fabric, hanging loose in strips or stretched over wire panels to give the illusion of flight. The materials are beaded, sequined and fringed; and there are wings, capes, headdresses and face paint. These are costumes oozing with exuberance that speak of magic and mystery — a world away from the prosaic feathers and leotards ubiquitous in mass-produced costume making.

The figures represent an ancient West African pantheon that’s woven into the lore of the Yoruba people, hailing mainly from Nigeria, Togo and Benin. Their stories of these deities, or mokos, travelled across the Atlantic on slave ships bound for the West Indies. The ‘jumbie’, thought to be a Trinidadian addition (meaning ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’), was later added, thus creating the story of the moko jumbie. They’re the ancestral spirits who flew alongside their kidnapped people, protecting them from harm as they sailed, shackled in chains, across the ocean.

The moko jumbies celebrate West African deities — whether it’s the Yoruban spirit Yemọja, a water spirit; Shango, a brave warrior; or Ochún, goddess of beauty and love.

Photograph by Jason C Audain

“It’s important that the roots of the moko jumbies are conveyed during a mas,” Alan says. “All of my costumes celebrate those West African figures in some way — whether it’s the Yoruban spirit Yemọja, a water spirit; Shango, a brave warrior; or Ochún, goddess of beauty and love.”

Alan often draws inspiration from novels, too. In 2018, when the human rights violations surrounding the Windrush scandal were exposed, he set to work on a mas inspired by The Lonely Londoners, a 1956 novel written by Trinidadian author Samuel Selvon that chronicles the lives of West Indian migrants in post-war London. The mas band performed at the Notting Hill Carnival, and offered a satirical critique of the UK’s treatment of immigrants.

“My art is about what’s happening now and how we negotiate our way in the world,” he says. “We as Europeans tend to put paintings in frames to try to preserve them, but mas is a whole different way of looking at things. Life changes day to day, month to month — so it’s important that art finds ways to navigate change.”

And, of course, that includes a pandemic.

In place of the usual Notting Hill Carnival, The UK National Panorama Steelband Competition — a celebration of carnival culture — will be held on 28 August 2021 at Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance Park, northwest London. Visit the Notting Hill Carnival website for more information.

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