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Carl Gabriel
Photograph: Roy Mehta

‘I am known as a wire man’: Meet pioneering Notting Hill Carnival sculptor Carl Gabriel

The sculptures of Carl Gabriel brought new life to Notting Hill Carnival. Here, he tells us why carnival art belongs in museums, as well as on the streets


What was your first experience of Notting Hill Carnival?

‘It was in the early ‘70s, about 1973. At that time, I was an enthusiastic photographer, and somebody said there was Carnival going on in Ladbroke Grove [so I went]. In those days, the main route of the Carnival was Portobello Road. A steel pan band was coming towards me. It was Ebony. Being a Trinidadian, we think we own pan and mas. So I thought, ‘woah! This is good!’. From that day I stayed with them all day long, until Carnival ended. I found out where they rehearsed, and I joined them as a pan player. I stayed with them until about 1983.’

So you were a photographer, and then a pan player, how did you end up in Carnival sculpture and design?

‘As a photographer, I used to document the Notting Hill Carnival, the making side of it. I used to be able to go into the ‘mas camp’ as we call it and befriend most of the designers. I used to go in and document and listen to the stories. In a mas camp, there’s always a story being told, about the ‘good old days’ and ‘back home’. I used to be fascinated by that. As we came into the 1990s, I got fed up – if that’s the word – of taking [pictures of] the same type of thing. I really wasn’t brought up in that mas making world, where you use feathers. It was all recycled materials, paste, papier-mâché, wire, bamboo, things like that. I wanted to bring that back. I am a trained engineer. I had that skill of manipulating material. I felt I had something more to contribute, other than photography. I entered the mask making arena – I did a presentation to the council, and they just loved the work, because it was so different.’

Your sculptures are such big, impressive objects, how long do they take to create?

‘It can take about six weeks to do a piece. My approach from day one was that, if I am going to do any of this sort of stuff, it’s got to be good enough to be seen at the V&A and the Science Museum. I must say, within two years, I was doing that. I did two exhibitions at the V&A, and one at the Science Museum.’

Carl Gabriel
Photograph: Roy Mehta

Is there a material you like to stick to working in?

‘Wire! I am known as a wire man. It’s more sculpture rather than costume. My whole aim is to do stuff that can be seen all year round. It will not be worn. It will be on a trolley as the main piece, but then after Carnival, it’s got a life, we can take it into galleries and museums, indoors, outdoors. Notting Hill Carnival is just one of the things that I do.’

Have you ever had any mishaps with your sculptures at Carnival?

‘I had a band, and I used to come on the street – in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, there was capacity then, space to bring these big pieces. There isn’t now. Now it’s like a big party. The new people who come to Carnival, they don’t really have respect for the costumes, they just come to party. It’s a problem, having those big pieces on the road. There’s no way it can go down to Ladbroke Grove.’

How do you feel about Notting Hill Carnival not happening on the streets this year?

‘I am fortunate because whether Carnival comes to the street or not, I am making Carnival pieces. But some of the band leaders and designers, I feel sorry for them in a way, because they really haven’t had the experience that I did, and they feel like they are losing out a lot. But I am still working with them and helping them, and saying ‘okay, let’s take this time to upskill, so next year will be even better.’’

Will you be taking part in the online version?

‘I tend to stand back. I don’t want to take the younger designers’ place. I’m giving them the opportunity. I’ll assist them in whatever they want to do. But I’ll keep a low profile. I’ve learned that when I show up, everybody moves aside and they get a bit nervous. That sounds a bit big-headed, but I always find that. I don’t want to intimidate anybody, I want to stay back and let everybody have a go, and when they are ready for me, I’ll be there.’

What would you like people to understand better about Notting Hill Carnival?

‘I want them to take time out and think, ‘what are we missing?’, and [think about] what it really means to them. It’s been going for so long, they don’t really realise what it’s doing for their life. It’s giving them an opportunity to think. Sometimes things happen for the better, you know. People might look back and think ‘wow, we missed that’. And when it does come back, they’ll appreciate it more.’

Carl Gabriel will be exhibiting his sculptures at Preston Community Library as part of the Brent Biennial Sep 19-Dec 13. Find out more here

For more timings and schedule details on the online Notting Hill Carnival, check out our guide

Get the story behind the most extra costume ever to hit Notting Hill Carnival. 

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