Tam Joseph

Spirit of the Carnival is a poignant, piercing commentary on the seemingly ever-increasing, ever-conspicuous police presence at the annual Notting Hill Carnival. The painting depicts a lone masquerader being penned in on all sides by a menacing sea of riot-ready police officers. On all sides of the figure, police with riot shields advance on the carnival reveller, as if seeking not to merely contain or arrest him, but to silence and obliterate him. For good measure, a ferocious police Alsatian strains on his handler’s leash, snarling at the masquerader, having previously drawn blood. And yet, the masquerader is resilient, unbowed, unintimidated. In the face of this relentless hostility and aggression, the reveller continues to play mas. It is this spirit of resilience and fortitude that enables the masquerader to embody the spirit of the carnival.

Spirit of the Carnival is about a number of things. Chief amongst them of course, the painting celebrates Black cultural and political resistance and resilience. The body – be that body collective or individual – can be attacked and wounded, perhaps even mortally so. But the spirit, when strong, is unbreakable.

The painting also effectively functions as commentary on the ways in which Carnival (and by extension, Black people themselves) are regarded within much of the British population and mainstream media as being synonymous with criminality. Each year, media reports of Notting Hill Carnival centre on, or are accompanied by, tallies of alleged criminal incidents, unambiguously suggesting that where and when Black people gather in number, criminality, delinquent behaviour and trouble are never far away. (3)

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