Alvaro Barrington is recalling his first ever festival experience in Grenada: “I was maybe five years old and my cousins took me to J’ouvert,” he says, referring to the day that acts as a precursor to the main party in Caribbean culture. “I have a memory of one of my older cousins holding my hand as we walked through the streets. We found a sound system and I climbed up on it and immediately fell asleep with the music blasting. A few hours later, I woke up to my cousin carrying me home while I laid on his shoulder.”
He may have missed out on the good stuff, but the sleepy experience has inspired his latest project. Because amid the floats, sound systems and food trucks at this year’s Notting Hill carnival there will also be a pavilion designed specifically for people who need to take a bit of time out from the action. Located next to where the carnival’s judges are based on the Great Western Road, the approximately three-metre high structure is made from a series of interlocking plywood components. The pavilion will be completed during the carnival’s opening parade by members of the community who will carry elements of the building, slotting them into the roughly pyramid-shaped construction themselves at the end of the procession. Once finished, party-goers will be able to rest inside Barrington’s pavilion, or clamber up the outside in order to better see the procession. “Carnival can be a place for many different types of culture,” he says. “For the Caribbean community, it has a long history of being a space in which art gets produced. I thought maybe we can bring architecture into that too.”
Born in Venezuela to a Haitian father, but having spent his early childhood with his maternal grandmother in Grenada, Barrington gravitated towards the annual west London party after arriving in the UK to study art seven years ago. He initiated the project, but it is also a collaboration with the architect Sumayya Vally, who became involved in the British carnival scene after she was picked to create the annual Serpentine pavilion last year. Her Hyde Park structure was a homage to various community spaces across London, not least the Mangrove, a historic Caribbean restaurant. It too spread beyond its initial home, with “fragments” of the building installed across the city, including in the Tabernacle, the Notting Hill music and community space.
“This new structure can likewise be taken apart and put back together, it is diasporic in its logic,” says Vally, whose grandparents were Indian migrants to South Africa. “We started to think about spaces of gathering in west London and across the Caribbean. There are characteristics we could reference, like steps and porches.” Barrington, who before he came to Britain spent his teenage years in Brooklyn, agrees that the stoop – the long external steps leading to the communal front doors of New York’s tenements and brownstones, places to socialise or watch the neighbourhood – are symbolic of African American community. The pavilion is, he says, a “place where the carnival judges can view the costumes being paraded, places where carnival elders can sit”.
Vally was the youngest designer in the history of the Serpentine pavilion and Barrington is no less precocious. His first show on graduating from art school was at New York’s MoMA PS1 and he is represented by six galleries internationally, curators and critics impressed by his expanded vision for painting. His canvases, the mainstay of his practice, are invariably interrupted by textiles, woven threads and objects, often referencing his own biography. They come together as a form of bricolage storytelling, often with migration as the central narrative.
“In the very short history of humans on this planet, migration is a consistent truth. It became a material interest in my art because though it’s personal it is also a universal human condition,” he explains. A recent work, Lady sing small @proud Mary bottom up, features different coloured threads sewn in blocks to a blue painted canvas. A drum and a broom are attached hanging down below the frame. Those elements are glorious intrusions to a composition that otherwise evokes the canonical history of geometric abstraction. At his recent solo exhibition at the South London Gallery, Barrington divided the space into North and South. In the former he hung a series of works reminiscent of cloud studies, made using wet concrete smeared onto dyed Hermès blankets. In the latter, as a commentary on global political and economic power structures, the same technique was used on hessian, the material most frequently associated with food bags and trade.
In 2019, the last carnival before its pandemic hiatus, Barrington organised a float of his paintings to join the parade. “Just to hire a truck can cost anything between £10,000 and £30,000. Now there’s inflation, there’s the cost of fuel. It’s getting harder. So what you find is that a lot of the creativity has had to be reeled in and instead you’ll see advertising for liquor or whatever. So I wanted to use a truck that would have been advertising a brand or whatever but instead show paintings.”
Is there a danger that gallery artists entering the foray could add to this gentrification? “The idea of artists as gentrifiers is a distraction from who actually has power in those processes,” he says. “Gentrification happens through legislation, through the social conditioning that property is an asset. Saying that artists are gentrifiers is often done in bad faith so as not to address the issue.” Vally agrees: “Notting Hill’s power comes from its hybridity, the way it brings so many people into the conversation,” she says.
Working with the carnival organisers was a natural fit. “I think there were a lot of assumptions made by very smart people in the 20th century about ideas of purity and reduction,” says Barrington, “and I think most people didn’t live their lives that way. I think what you see in my practice and Sumayya’s practice is that these definitions were never truly real. Some people fell into an assembly line idea of art making, where they would only make paintings. But most people don’t live their creativity that way.”