The work of Melissa Simon-Hartman is never without controversy. In one year, she added horns and was denounced as a devil worshiper. This addition of horns was then copied by other carnival bands in the following years. This year, before she even launches, she is threatened and stalked viciously online because of her chosen theme. A pic of her designs is leaked online before she has her formal launch. Isn’t that just ugly movements? And for me, that just shows how great a designer she is. Cause really, if she wasn’t all that, they wouldn’t give her so much attention would they? There wouldn’t be such an uproar. They wouldn’t feel so threatened.
For there are designers. And then there are DESIGNERS. The ones who are innovative, creative, skillful. The ones who give particular attention to theme. Whose work leaves a lasting impression and can work on any fashion platform internationally inside or outside the carnival arena. Melissa Simon Hartman is such a designer. And you have no idea how happy I was when she invited Ilovecarnivall exclusively to the photoshoot for this year’s Notting Hill Carnival.
Melissa is one of my favourite designers on the London carnival scene. I like her designs. It’s never really what I expect (with the exception that there are hardly ever feathers in her costumes and she likes a cape). There is always loads of detail (front and back of the costume). Her costumes are hardly ever two dimensional. She experiments with different textures and fabrics.
The day long photoshoot was held at a studio in North London. As well as Melissa and her husband Travis, there was Michelle Lucas who also designed two costumes, photographer Fiona Compton, filming crew ‘Insight Production’ Creative make-up artist Bryony O Dame, make up artist Karen Salandy and her assistant Tia and the models. I wasn’t familiar with two of the models (Alexsandrah and Hassan) but I know Curmiah and Kimhia. When I saw those two, I knew there would be something special and powerful.
Hassan the male model was funny. His make up was done and was waiting to put costume on but he couldn’t help but have a plate of the salt fish fritters and pasta. I remember the make up artist telling him off for that and him having at least three plates of food by the end of the day.
So I knew the theme was African Deities based. The first costume comes out. So here I am thinking African theme, loads of colour right? No. Hassan, tall dark skin beautiful model comes out in a costume that is all white. And he had white contacts in. Now I don’t what it was exactly but the image hit me like a sledgehammer. It was so powerful. There was an energy I just couldn’t explain. And not what I was expecting at all. I had so many questions to hand. The theme was definitely apparent in the costume if you know your Orishas and faith. So Fiona and I look at each other and think ‘Damn’. and she gets to work. I’m trying not to get in the way but I need to capture this as much as I can.
The next costume took my breath away. Literally. Modeled by Kimhia there was so much bling on the bustier, the headpiece, the cape and those boots!! The white with silver add ons. The hat. She looked so regal and sexy at the same time! I was thinking, is this really for Notting Hill Carnival? This looks like an editorial piece. The camera starts clickiing and Kimhia begins to work her magic. Every five minutes I’m hearing from Fiona ‘Gorgeous, Yo i can’t..’ Fiona takes her shots then Adrian from Insight Productions does the filming part and I’m trying to take my pics..
The costume modelled by Curmiah and designed by Michelle was an all in one piece with long flyaway sleeves, It was cutsie. That headpiece which the two pony tails, I don’t know, it gave me a Japanese manga vibe. Curmiah too brought the poses for the camera!
Then there was the model Alexsandrah who also knew all the angles as well and just seemlessly moved from one to the other. The loads of tassels and headpiece will definitely attract the attention. Then there was the big fan back pack which will also get noticed.
Curmiah wore my second favourite piece. It hides the belly while still making a great impact. Simple to move around Notting Hill Carnival but still making an impact. And when I tell you Curmiah loved up this garment. I was able to capture some of it on video all with sounds and all. They gave her a little umbrella and it was game over.
Out came Kimhia again with something that could be a wedding costume. The transparent jumpsuit, the veil, and trail…
And Alexsandrah was back dressed with that amazing headpiece.
The next piece modelled by Hassan will need plenty of room on the road. Depicting an abstract elephant with Hassan as the trunk, it creates impact. You will not miss this on the road.
This was probably the simplest of the costumes. But the hat makes it. And when Kimhia went through her poses for the photoshoot lordy…
Now you know I have questions right? So I asked….
When people think of African inspired costumes, they think of colour; bright, vibrant bold colours. Why did you choose white only as your colour theme? I decided to do one section this year based on a single Orisha and a small selection of individual costumes based on other Orisha’s. Each deity/orisha are represented by specific colours; you cannot deviate from that. I chose to base the section mas around the Orisha Obatala, whose colour is ‘white’. White is a powerful and symbolic colour. It contains ALL the colours of the spectrum.
The Afro Deities art project is a big one and will run for 3 consecutive years. This NHC 2018 costume presentation is only a small part of it. I have plans to extend this concept across a variety of artistic platforms over the next 2 years. For example, an exhibition and a graphic novel publication is in the planning. There will be more representations of other Orishas during this period whilst I continue to research and enhance my existing knowledge.
Can you tell us a bit about your deity for your inspiration, Obalata? Why this one and not one of the more popular ones? Obatalá is the only orisha that has both male and female paths, which is relevant for Legion’s presentation as we only have one unisex section on the road this year. Obatala is a high ranking Orisha and leader of all heads but back in the day . . . Obatala had a weakness for a drink or two (palm wine in particular). What other Orisha can be more relevant to the antics involving alcohol on the roads of NHC? (laugh). The excessive drinking led to trouble and Obatala changed and later became the Orisha to represent all that is pure, wise peaceful and compassionate and hates alcohol. In fact, even the children of Obatala today do not drink alcohol at all. When you think about the meaning of carnival and repentance, I believe that Obatala is the obvious choice of Orisha to portray at NHC.
Do you think people will get it? Some will, others won’t, but that is a good thing. Each year my carnival presentations create some level of controversy. If this did not happen, I would question whether I am still creating ART. Art should please and inspire but should also challenge and offend. People with a knowledge of Obatala will recognise key elements in this collection and get it straight away. Hopefully those who are confused by it will be provoked to find out more.
How many masqueraders will you be catering for? Will you still be with Tears? Up to 150 but some of the designs will be exclusive with limited numbers catering up to only 3 or 5 players at the most. Michelle Lucas has joined Legion as a designer this year and has created two exquisite pieces, Máfòyà and Oríire, so there are many options to choose from despite the consistency in colour. Yes, we are on the road with Tears again this year.
What will be the costings? There are a variety of choices to suit all budgets this year starting from £175 ranging all the way up to £800 plus for Individual costumes.
Can you tell us a bit about your choice of material to use? There are no feathers not even white. There are a few white feathers laser cut from foam on the ‘Adesire’ costume (smile). I am obsessed with texture, so there is a combination of different types of fabric. Foam, tulle, lace, fringe, cotton, beading, even accents of metal and plastic have been used in this collection.
Gotta ask this, the very popular section by Solange Govia in Trinidad was also white. Did that influence your colour choice at all? Solange’s work is beautiful; however, it was the Orisha I chose to portray that dictated the colour choice. The Orishas can be interpreted in different ways but changing the colours that represent them is a ‘No No’.
I do also have to mention that the beauty and power of the all-white mas that Peter Minshall has released previously had an influence on my decision to take this route. Admittedly I am stuck in the past, I tend to draw back on the work of Minshall, Berkeley and MacFarlane for inspiration. I did something similar with an all red mas I designed as a tribute in 2016.
What type of masquerader do you envisage wearing your costumes? We attract a niche market of masqueraders with an appreciation for high fashion and art. Masqueraders who enjoy the drama of portraying characters on the road. I believe this year’s theme will also attract masqueraders who are in touch with their African roots and have a spiritual connection with their ancestors (smile).
Somethings just marked this photoshoot as purely West Indian; the music playing in the background, the unbelieveable amount of food are just some things. There was so much food left over, we were moaning the fact that we did not bring containers to bring food home. If you’re west Indian, you’ll understand. When Fiona asked ‘Y’all doe have foil?’ I couldn’t help but burst out laughing as in my mind, if we don’t have containers, foil will do. And there was more. Never, in any other photoshoots I have been to, have I experienced the sense of this energy and something greater and powerful being present. At some points, the hairs on my head felt all tingly and I shivered.
So. What is your view of carnival? If, you have only been exposed to particular carnivals and your experience of carnival is limited as being only about drunkenness and debauchery, bikini, beads and feather, you will object to this collection. You will call down the power of the ancestors and orishas to rebuke this. You will say it is defamation of religion and not being respectful and this has no place in carnival. Religion is synonymous with culture. Carnival is synonymous with culture. Themes for carnivals costumes have been based on religious deities before; Greek Gods, Roman Gods, Hindu and more. This is nothing new. Carnival has been has been used as a platform for resistance, brought awareness, has been political. Religion has been portrayed in carnival in the past and presently. Carnival is the every day person’s time to highlight what they want to through mas, be it politics, religion, sexuality, comedy. Has carnival gone so far the other way that we have forgotten some of the original reasons for playing mas? Celebration of our culture of which religion is part of?
In the carnivals of Brazil (one of the places other than Cuba and Nigeria of unbroken line of lived tradition, of Orisha worship), religion is very much part of carnival. Salvador carnival in particular which I attended this year, bands like Ile Aiye, the Yoruba religion is so much part of the mas band and carnival. There is religious ceremony before this band goes on the road which I witnessed. The crowd was blessed, offerings were given, doves were released. The costumes, the music, the drums, the beat all pays homage to the Orishas and the ancestors. You should see how much religion in carnival is respected. How much this band is revered. So what’s the difference here? Is it because this is London? Do you think that London designers can’t do it right? Can’t get it? Won’t be respectful enough? Cause let me tell you this. Some of the London based designers put so much effort into their craft, researching their themes, ensuring they do it in the most respectful way. Their skills are second to none and their work is more than enough to be displayed on the international platform. Melissa Simon-Hartman is one of those designers.
This collection for Notting Hill Carnival was done with the utmost respect and reverence for the Orishas. From observing, this is not something Melissa Simon-Hartman undertook lightly. She wanted to honor, revere and highlight the Orisha faith, for there have been times and places such as in Cuba where people of the faith have been very much persecuted and arrested for its practice. The faith had to be practiced in secret.
This collection will not appeal to many many masqueraders. If you like a lot of feathers, a lot of bikini pieces or loads of colour, definitely not for you. If you cling to the more well known African deities, this high carnival white collection is also not for you. If you think carnival is only ever about debauchery and you want religion to be secret, be outside of public arenas, you will object. This will appeal to masqueraders who know a bit more about Orisha. Who are not afraid to show their faith for the world to see (what 1 million people at Notting Hill carnival? It will be seen). For those who want to pay homage to black culture, religion and black faith. Who want to have fun and celebrate life!! Melissa’s carnival collection is for the risk takers, for those not afraid of controversy. It’s beautiful. It will be iconic, it will be remembered, it will be culture and it will be carnival.
For more information please visit www.legionmas.com, Legion Mas on Facebook and Instagram. All images and video with this article was taken by Ilovecarnivall ‘Behind the Scenes’.