LONDON — As designer Clary Salandy pushes open the kitchen door at a nondescript community center in west London, her visitors pause, astonished by what they find.
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 on 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. The plastic foam animals will be kept in safe custody while they are being processed.
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! That’s incredible !”’ Salandy. We’ll lift them out of COVID, and then take them onwards. 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 particurlary 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 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. This heritage is the inspiration for Notting Hill Carnival. It’s a celebration and festival of Caribbean culture, which has become Europe’s biggest street festival. Due to the pandemic, the end-of-summer party had to be cancelled in the past two years.
Artist Carl Gabriel, who is collaborating with Mahogany, is still putting the finishing touches on an 85-kilogram (nearly 200-pound) bust of the queen, complete with crown and diamond necklace, that will form the centerpiece of the performance. On its plinth, it is four meters (13 feet) tall.
Gabriel has spent months building the sculpture using the traditional technique of wire-bending together with his own innovations. The almost completed work looks like a huge macrame project. It was created by carefully bending wire pieces around a metal frame with a variety of pliers, hammers and other tools. He wore safety glasses and a leather apron to his London studio. After the process, Gabriel said that he wanted the piece to be meaningful for Queen Elizabeth II and others.
“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 costumer maker and a teacher at Queen’s Park Community School, who is working with 24 young dancers. It all revolves around the queen.
“Every visit that she’s ever been on, every time that she’s come out, she’s always represented the country at its best. Cummings stated that she has never seen Cummings looking scruffy. We have to do it for that reason alone. We are here. 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 tribute to him.”
Follow AP’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth II at https://apnews.com/hub/queen-elizabeth-ii