Colourful costumes, coconut curries and calypso aside, at the heart of Carnival is the celebration of a community. New book Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival, published by Rice n Peas Publishing, champions the magic, the musicians and the makers of the Notting Hill Carnival. In it, authors Ishmahil Blagrove Jr and Margaret Busby look back at the origins of the festival in the 1950s and 60s, before crime and crowd control began to hog the headlines.
It all began with a Caribbean carnival organised by human rights campaigner Claudia Jones in January 1959. Unfortunately – as Ishmahil points out – the bacchanal was somewhat thwarted by the Great British weather, and had to take place inside, in the St Pancras Town Hall. It wasn’t until social worker Rhaune Laslett dreamed of a “hamblecha” (festival) that the Notting Hill Festival was founded in 1966. She described her vision to The Caribbean Times in a 1989 interview: “I could see the streets thronged with people in brightly coloured costumes, they were dancing and following bands and they were happy. Some faces I recognised, but most were crowds, men, women, children, black, white, brown, but all laughing.”
Filled with stories from actors, artists, organisers and musicians, and a fascinating collection of photographs, Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival is an amazing archive as well as a work of art in its own right. We spoke to Ishmahil, a journalist, film-maker, editor and producer/director of Rice N Peas Films about his book and what the Carnival means to him.
How long have you been working on the book?
I have been researching the book for the past three years and did the majority of the design in Cuba.
Where have the photographs come from?
The vast majority (60%) of the photographs were taken by Allan “Capitan” Thornhill who died earlier this year. He was like a father figure to me. He photographed the early carnivals right up until 2010 and was the head of security for the notorious Michael De Freitas, alias Michael X. I know many of the early photographers and they all donated their images, photographers such as: Charlie Phillips, Norman Reid, Homer Sykes, David Hoffman, Vernon St Hilaire.
Can you pick one photograph which really sums up the spirit of the Carnival?
A photograph by Fitz Piper taken in 1968. The picture shows the jubilance that West Indians felt in having such a celebration in the country or as Selwyn Baptiste put it, “We brought a little bit of heaven to Britain.”
Best costume of all time?
I’m not a Carnivalist as such but there are great costume-makers that all deserve their dues, like Ashton Charles, Peter Minshall, Lawrence Noel, Vernon Fellow, Clary Selandy and Gloria Cummings. All the costumes are magnificent and costumes are not produced for competition, but for expression, portrayal, theatre and to create two days of magic that even Alice from Wonderland can appreciate.
The same goes for best performer, I don’t see the carnival in this way. Carnival is a shared spectacle whereby even the spectators are performers.
What influence does the Carnival have on the artistic/creative community of Notting Hill?
The artistic and creative influences and achievements of the African and Caribbean communities throughout Britain have not been fully appreciated or recognised by the state or the institutional art bodies that exist in this country. Our artists should be recognised as costume-makers and artists and our musicians recognised as such, unfortunately, this is not the case and this needs to change. The Carnival has not only influenced art in Britain, it has influenced race relations, the notion of multiculturalism and the foundation of the black identity in Britain. Carnival is a window into the black experience and beyond.
How important is the Carnival to the way the West Indian population is perceived/understood in the UK? Is this a good or a bad thing?
The Carnival is very important in regards to how the African and Caribbean communities are perceived and viewed in Britain. Sadly the media often sidesteps the magic, artistry and genius of those two days and reduce the spectacle to crime statistics. They determine the success of this celebration of costume, music, dance and unity on the basis of how many arrests were made over the two days. This is something that has to change – the establishment and the media need to embrace the true identity of Carnival and glory in what it has contributed to this country.