As designer Clary Salandy pushes open the kitchen door at a nondescript community center in west London, her visitors pause at the sight.
A dozen giraffe heads, crafted in shades of orange and brown with top hats and flowing eyelashes, smile in a tidy row atop the commercial-grade stove, while a pair of zebras peer out from a corner near the refrigerator.
That sense of surprise is exactly what Salandy hopes people will experience Sunday, when the giraffes and zebras join a troupe of dancing elephants and flamingos outside Buckingham Palace as part of the pageant that will cap off four days of festivities celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne. In the meantime, the plastic foam beasts will remain locked in the kitchen for safekeeping.
Salandy and her team at Mahogany Carnival Arts want their playful reimagining of the setting where the young Princess Elizabeth learned she was queen in 1952, while on a wildlife expedition in Kenya, to spark a sense of fun and fantasy in a nation recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.
They want, in short, to inspire joy.
“When you see it, you should go, ‘Wow! You know, that’s amazing!’” Salandy said. “We’re going to lift people out of COVID and take them forward when they finish. People should feel positive that life is coming back and we’re going to move forward and back into enjoying our lives.”
That message will be delivered by a group of 250 artists and performers from the African-Caribbean community, which was particularly hit hard by the pandemic and is now being squeezed by the cost-of-living crisis.
But the performers want to reach out to everyone with a presentation that celebrates the diversity of Britain and the Commonwealth.
Children will become swans, older people will zoom around in mobility scooters decked out as flamingos and dancers will bring the giraffes and zebras to life, perhaps even to mingle with the crowds.
Another group of dancers will unite to form the queen’s coronation robe, with the symbols of every major faith and nods to all 54 of the Commonwealth nations woven into its purple and white fabric.
The dances and costumes — really wearable sculptures — grow out of the traditions of Carnival as it is celebrated in the Caribbean. That heritage inspired the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of Caribbean culture that has grown into Europe’s largest street festival. The end-of-summer party was canceled the last two years because of the pandemic.
Artist Carl Gabriel, who is collaborating with Mahogany, is still putting the finishing touches on an 85-kilogram bust of the queen, complete with crown and diamond necklace, that will form the centerpiece of the performance. On its plinth, it is 4 meters tall.
Gabriel has spent months building the sculpture using the traditional technique of wire-bending together with his own innovations. Created by painstakingly bending bits of wire around a metal frame using an assortment of pliers and hammers, the almost finished work resembles a giant macrame project. After he donned safety glasses and a leather apron at his studio in London, he said he wants the work to have meaning for the queen — and many others besides.
“I feel a lot of people are suffering,” Gabriel said. “The least I could do is provide those who suffered a hard time some enjoyment by presenting the work to them.”
At its heart, the performance is a celebration of the queen’s 70 years of service, said Nicola Cummings, a costume-maker and a teacher at Queen’s Park Community School, who is working with 24 young dancers. The queen is at the heart of it all.
“Every visit that she’s ever been on, every time that she’s come out, she’s always represented the country at its best. We’ve never seen her looking scruffy,” Cummings said. “For that alone, you know, we’ve got to give back now. Here we are. We’re showing her our best.”
But the performance also carries a message of rejuvenation.
Mahogany’s community was an epicenter of the first outbreak of COVID-19, and the months of preparation for the jubilee have lifted the performers, many of whom lost family members during the pandemic.
Just as the queen promised the nation at the height of the pandemic that people would meet their friends and families again, so the performers are celebrating the ability to dance again as part of a community — a group even tighter now than before.
Cummings will be thinking about her father, who was also involved in carnivals. He died of COVID-19 last year.
“I feel like I’m representing him in a way,” she said, unable to hold back the tears. “This is almost like a tribute to him.”