A People’s Carnival is the Genesis of their Freedom

Benji Gordon photographs the 2017 Notting Hill Carnival

It is a story of love, hope, death and remembrance. It is an event that epitomises the genesis of freedom, a signifier of a moment in time, a reflection of the spirit of a people. As clouds broke and temperatures rose just in time for the bank holiday weekend, Notting Hill Carnival basked unfettered beneath the shadow of Grenfell. If 2017 will be marked as one that represents the best of times, and the worst of times, Notting Hill Carnival was easily amongst the best of them.

J’ouvert, traditionally held in the Caribbean, in its original manifestation has been a celebration of the emancipation from slavery. Celebrating freedom as a ritual of remembrance, the dawn ahead of the carnival is marked with people anointing each other with paint, mud, or oil. Beginning at 6am, as reporters descend on Notting Hill, early revellers begin the day with powder and paint, marking ‘ole mas’ as the precursor to glittery, feathery ‘pretty mas’.

Originating in 1958, in response to Notting Hill race riots, the first carnival was organised by Claudia Jones, the founder of the West Indian Gazette. Staged indoors at St Pancras town hall in December of the same year, the event was televised by the BBC leading with the title “A people’s art is a genesis of their freedom”. It was 8 years later that the carnival took to the streets of Notting Hill in 1966 through the efforts of another community activist Rhaune Laslett.

Set up to promote cultural unity, the first event was an intimate community event with up to a 1000 people attending with a steel band, processions and calypso dancing. Now the biggest street carnival in Europe, the Notting Hill Carnival contributes almost £100 million to the London economy, yet has faced constant threats of being moved since the late 70’s. Despite being stigmatised by the police and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, the Notting Hill Carnival remains stronger than ever, attracting over 2 million people across two days. This years carnival opened with a multi-faith ceremony in remembrance of the victims of Grenfell fire which was marked with flying doves and a minutes silence.

Notting Hill Carnival as a living canvas of community, is still a defiant display of unity. This year we introduce the photographic work of Benji Gordon in celebration of the beauty of carnival.