Celebrating the jubilant moments of Notting Hill Carnival

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The annual celebration attracts over two million people from a diverse, international background. In its absence, a new show presents its festivities through a markedly Black British lens

To coincide with what would be the 56th annual outdoor carnival in London’s Notting Hill, photographer and curator Rio Blake has organised a group exhibition commemorating the iconic event, which has been cancelled for the second year in a row. Opening tomorrow, An Ode to Carnival reminds us of the carnival’s power to unite and entertain, all set to the rhythm of Black music. 

The four-day exhibition charts the recent history of Notting Hill Carnival — evoking the smells of home-cooked ackee, saltfish curry and Caribbean jerk chicken, the closely packed crowds who dance shoulder to shoulder and the sounds of the reggae and steel pans. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in Alex Kurunis’ Sunday of Carnival, 2017, Golborne Road, in which a boy clutching a bottle of Hennessy cracks open a wide smile, his dark skin shining in the hot August sun. 

Elsewhere, in Holly-Marie Cato’s Fly Your Flag, a young girl waves the Jamaican flag – a symbolic reminder and sign of solidarity with the Jamaican Windrush community who helped establish the carnival in its early days. In the work of Isaac J Cambridge, a neon-clad subject standing in the centre of a busy frame captures the diversity of the black diaspora.

Using visual images alongside live music, “the exhibition aims to recreate the times we would have had,” says Blake. “In the wake of the second year of cancellation for the annual Notting Hill Carnival, this is a commemorative photography exhibition showcasing archived images of carnival celebrations from the past.”

The charity exhibition, which takes place a stone’s throw from Notting Hill at White City Studio, showcases work donated from London-based emerging photographers such as Serena Brown, to Magnum photographer Martin Parr. All of the featured works will be available for purchase, with proceeds donated to the Grenfell Foundation, an independent support organisation for former residents of the nearby Grenfell Tower, which was destroyed by a fire in 2017.

The photographs are as much a documentation of carnivals gone by as they are a reflection of contemporary British society. But while the show is underpinned by a nostalgic hankering for carnivals past, it successfully manages to balance this with the anticipation and promise of more festivities to come.

An Ode to Notting Hill Carnival by Rio Blake will be on show at White City Studios, London, from 29 August until 01 September 2021. The exhibition is partnered with charities YoungMinds and Mind in Mind. All print sale proceeds raised from the exhibition are being donated to the Grenfell Foundation.

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.