What the Notting Hill Carnival can teach the climate change movement

The workshops of Mahogany Carnival Design are a menagerie of colour, glitter, fabric, wire and movement. A swan costume left over from an Olympics 2012 display sits by a huge, bejeweled eagle produced for the anniversary of a local Hindu Temple, and giant butterfly wings lean against the wall. Bits of zebras, lions, gazelles, dragons, butterflies and bats are strewn across every surface. They are maybe more than usually dominated by animals this summer, as the theme they’re taking to the Notting Hill Carnival is climate change.

It’s more than just a tip for those attending Carnival to look out for. It speaks to debates on both sides of the Atlantic about the whiteness of professional environmentalism. A half-century old festival led by London’s Caribbean community, the Notting Hill Carnival has long challenged British artistic organisations to be more than posh and white. As its artists apply themselves to climate change, we can extend this challenge to science and the green movement too.

“I need to take a quick look at the ice,” remarks designer Clary Salandy – who co-runs Mahogany with her partner, structural engineer Michael ‘Speedy’ Ramdeen – as she clutches her phone and busies us across the road to the extra workshops above a local church. The ice she is referring to are layers upon layers of icicle-shaped white foam, piled up waiting to become the final piece of their display; a massive, but intricate depiction of the melting Arctic.

Laxmi Kanbi, who has worked with Mahogany since she left school over a decade ago, took me through the narrative arc as a whole. The action starts with a Big Bang. This is a children’s section, and flames of yellow and orange foam will curl over their shoulders, turning them into a mass of little explosions. The next stage offers a joyful parade of flowers, followed by one of pollinators, a celebration of the birth, development and continuity of life. Next we see gazelles running through grasslands and dancers stand tall with giant lions’ heads. Then the tone changes dramatically, and we’re in a dark, bat-filled ‘dead forest’ before shifting to the melting Arctic.

Salandy elaborates on her design. The Big Bang may be a nod to the scientific discourse on climate change, but it has a poetic meaning, too. It signifies the beginning of everything, but this also combines with a nod to more apocalyptical associations of explosions; a start and possible threatening end at once. There is a juxtaposition of the fire of explosions with the melting ice, which also offers a mix of colour; the bright sparks of the Bang move to the flowers and animals before getting eerily dark as the forest dies and we move to the Arctic. “The colour is leaving,” Salandy concludes: “The colour is leaching out.”

Something there won’t be any of, at all, are bees. This is deliberate: “I haven’t put any bees in because they are dying. There is an absence of bees.” Salandy also says that the lions are deliberately more stylised than the other animals: “they are done in a very impressionistic way, they are surreal. They’re not real lions, but lions of your imagination. They are what we are heading to – we won’t find lions in our landscapes, they’ll only be in our imaginations or zoos, so we’ve used an artists’ impression of a lion.” The lions are also designed to appear to be soldiers, reflecting another narrative; that of action. “After the flowers and pollinators, we’ve got gazelles and lions standing up to fight, the animals have to become the guardians of their home, and fight us back for their space.” An intricate set of symbols and stories, ripe for a range of interpretations; the essence of Carnival.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the Notting Hill Carnival would be interested in climate change. There is the perhaps obvious link to the small island states of the Caribbean, parts of the world especially at risk from climate change. But beyond this, the event has always been political, a proud celebration of black British culture in the face of systemic and often violent racism. Mahogany’s first appearance at the Carnival, in 1989, highlighted Tiananmen Square, and with the 50th anniversary of the Carnival upon us, Salandy feels the need to address contemporary issues is especially important.

Mahogany have also been influenced by the work they do out of Carnival season: “We do a lot of work for Greenpeace,” Salandy explains. “We make a lot of their animals. Cows, tigers, orangutans, polar bears. And they’ve all been really successful campaigns because the characters are so loveable. It’s difficult when you see this loveable animal, to behave as if it doesn’t matter.” Kanbi later shows me how each of the lions’ heads are not only intricately put together and shimmering with colour, but hollow to remain lightweight. The lions’ manes will bounce and flow as the dancers move, and the bats – for the dead forest – will flap in just the right way. Weeks of research, design and tinkering go into this; close study which must build a strong relationship with the animals. Salandy also talks passionately about the recent arrest of Greenpeace activists in Russia, and the importance of protecting the Arctic.

But Salandy and Kanbi have more to offer the likes of Greenpeace than the other way around; there is a lot the art of Carnival has to teach climate communications.

Firstly, it’s their location, smack in the centre of Harlesden. Forces of gentrification notwithstanding, it is a largely working class, largely non-white part of town. Salandy is fiercely proud of the people that produce this art: “The people here have imagination, they have skills. We’ve been in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics with things made in this room, by these hands” she adds, pointing to the young people around her. She wants the world to see that, and for the local community to see it themselves, too. “That’s why we start [our procession] here, outside the church in Harlesden. If we start nearer the centre of town the people in this poor community won’t get to see us. They’ll see and go ‘oh, that was the thing I was seeing through the window!’ The people here can say ‘our children did that.’”

Perhaps the most important lesson the climate change community can learn from Mahogany is the sense of participation it is built upon. Carnival involves getting a lot of people on the street, it is a popular movement. But, beyond that, there are the amount of people who take part in the artistic process, and how open to interpretation the stories are; open to be understood and reapplied by a diversity of audiences. People from all over the community work together to build and perform the designs, and bring something of themselves to them. The spectators on the street add their own interpretations too. For all that both science and the green movement regularly play to the rhetoric of participation, it is rare they seem to really mean it. All too often they only offer rather closed, pre-set invitations – sign a petition, count some butterflies, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity, join a group – more about enumerating the actors of PR or getting some grunt work done than actively diffusing power. In contrast, Mahogany truly live by their principles of community and participation.

There is also the skill and beauty of the designs, and the sense of joy and celebration which goes with any carnival. Salandy elaborated: “Carnival has to tell a story, but it also has to uplift the spirits. Even if you are telling a terrible story, everyone dances. It doesn’t matter how dark the story is, somehow you have to remember how beautiful it is. That’s what the polar bears do, they are so lovely.” She laughs as she remembers a set of costumes she had made for Greenpeace: “Oh, our chickens, they are just hilarious! The police were killing themselves laughing! We have these pictures of the police pleading with this chicken, saying please don’t make me arrest you, and this truck full of arrested chickens.” Her voice calms to a more serious tone “And that means you don’t get the aggression, because it’s not about aggression, it’s peaceful.”

Finally, carnival is also an intergenerational event, about children, adults, families and connections between different ages. This has power in the context of a range of social and political issues – or just for a good party – but offers something special for the climate debate. “The environmental theme might go all over the heads of some of the children, but everyone else will see those children, see that they have a right to see lions in their natural habitat, they have a right to live in a world with polar bears.”

As Gary Younge describes: “Carnival, Trinidad-style, with no entry fee, is truly open to everyone. Blurring the lines between participant and spectator, it takes popular subjects of concern as its raw material for lyrics and costumes. Massive in size, working-class in composition, spontaneous in form, subversive in expression and political in nature – the ingredients for carnival are explosive.” A form of explosion many in science and the green movement could arguably do with more of.

The Notting Hill Carnival takes place on Sunday August 24 and Monday August 25.

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