Organizers of Europe’s biggest street fair, which traces its roots to the emancipation of Black slaves and race riots in London during the late 1950s, say the event is more important than ever amid the worldwide campaign for justice after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.
But their message of resistance and reconciliation will be delivered online worldwide this weekend after the COVID
-19 pandemic forced London’s Notting Hill Carnival to reinvent itself as a virtual event.
Even though it won’t be the same, carnival must be celebrated as a mark of Black liberation, said Clary Salandy, artistic director of Mahogany Carnival Arts, which creates brightly colored costumes that are essentially wearable sculptures — some 15-feet-high — for carnival dancers.
“We can’t be on the street,″ she said. “But carnival is very much alive.”
The Notting Hill Carnival is a product of the massive influx of Black immigrants who came to Britain from its former colonies to help rebuild the country after World War II.
The wave of immigration created tensions in British society, with widespread discrimination in housing and employment that boiled over into riots in 1958. The next year, Black activist Claudia Jones organized a precursor to the carnival, a dance at St. Pancras town hall that raised money for the defense of those arrested in the turmoil.
In 1966, Carnival took to the streets of Notting Hill, one of the few places in London where landlords would rent to Blacks. The celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture has grown into a two-day street party that attracts millions of visitors to a parade of costumed dancers, steel drum bands and smoky barbecue pits serving jerk chicken and plantains.
This year, elements of the event will be prerecorded and streamed to the world on Aug. 29-31, the long weekend that traditionally ends Britain’s summer holiday season. One channel will focus on the parade, including the dancers who normally snake through the streets of Notting Hill wearing colorful headdresses, masks and movable art. Others will stream music, cultural discussions and presentations on food and drink.
Executive Director Matthew Phillip said the online format provides an opportunity to reach more people.
“From the comfort of your own home, you’ll not only to be exposed to the entertainment of carnival, but also the people behind carnival ... and hear stories of how it came to be and the struggles that people have undergone,” he said.
This year’s themes include the Black Lives Matter movement and a celebration of Britain’s National Health Service, which is working to control the pandemic that has hit the Black community harder than others.
Among those featured is Carolyn Roberts-Griffith, who recently showed off the immense replica of the scales of justice she will carry on her slender shoulders, tilting the canary yellow sculpture gracefully as she moves.
The costume embodies the fight for equal treatment under the law, the 59-year-old said.
“This is what we’re asking,″ she said wiping a tear from her eye. “We’re just asking for a balance.″
Participants hope this year’s carnival message will help to make up for the lack of human interaction. They want to convey a story in which passion and protest trump the pain that Floyd’s death and the COVID
-19 pandemic have brought to the Black community and other minority groups.
“As disastrous as this year has been, it has opened our eyes to so many struggles that other people are facing in the world,” said Jez Smith, 23, showing off the 15-foot-tall sculpture he will wear to honor Floyd. “I think it’s kind of giving people the momentum to speak up for change. We can’t argue with change. Change is what we need.”
The sculpture shows Floyd’s portrait suspended within a black wire mesh structure representing a man’s head. It invites the viewer to look past the outer covering and see what’s inside, Smith said.
“I want them to know that this man represents all of us,” he said. “I want them to be able to look through that face, look at him and realize that our differences are what bring us together. They should be celebrated and cherished and respected.”
Carnival grew out of traditional festivals in Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean nations, where former slaves took to the streets to celebrate their freedom. Like those events, the Notting Hill Carnival is a mixture of celebration and protest.
Costume designer Salandy remembers the joy of seeing enormous costumes of bees and white elephants when she went to her first carnival as a child in Trinidad, wearing wings on her shoulders. After she moved to London in 1978 she channeled that sense of childhood wonder into a career creating costumes for the Notting Hill Carnival and other events.
Her workshop now provides an opportunity for young people to learn about their culture and share it with the world. as they are transformed by her costumes into swans, zebras and other creatures that exist largely in Salandy’s imagination.
Salandy is hoping people see the online carnival and get inspired because she’s worried COVID
-19 will reduce funding for the arts and programs like hers.
“Just taking part in carnival, you are joining the commemoration and you are standing up for what is right. You’re standing up for freedom,” Salandy said. “And so that’s why it’s really important. ... Look at it! Make sure you engage with it, understand it and support it.″