Carl Gabriel: from mas band to museum

Carl Gabriel has raised the Carnival craft of wirebending to a fine art. David Katz admires his many skills

Another Carl Gabriel original, with half the original wirework exposed. Photograph courtesy Carl GabrielGabriel with some of his creations. Photograph by David KatzOne of Gabriel`s wire creations, covered in papier-mâché. Photograph by David Katz

In the last few years, the London-based Carnival artist Carl Gabriel has achieved international renown for his large-scale sculptures, lovingly handcrafted through the disappearing art of traditional wirebending. They’re surprisingly lifelike, despite often being composed of nothing but galvanised steel. They have been exhibited at the British Library and the Science Museum in London, as well as on the campus of Ohio State University.

To those in the know, within London’s Carnival fraternity, these works are just the latest incarnation of Gabriel’s long and varied involvement in all things Carnival. Indeed, his greatest inspiration came through childhood experiences of Carnival in south Trinidad.

“My godmother lived on the route to Skinner Park in San Fernando, when all the bands had to pass down Rushford Street,” he explains, “and because my family was well-known, a lot of players had to pop in for rice and peas. So that’s where I saw everything, and this latent memory is what keeps me producing the sort of work that I produce today.

“Also, my grandmother was into Shango, and I just have this feeling that she left something with me, and I feel it when I’m working.”

Gabriel left Trinidad in 1964 to join his parents in London, where his father worked as a tailor in Savile Row. He had already shown impressive skill in woodcarving as a schoolboy in Trinidad, and then excelled at technical drawing and engineering in London, which led to his early employment as a sheet metal engineer. But Gabriel was soon drawn to outlets for artistic expression.

“I always wanted to do photography, so I went to evening class and joined a photographic society, which gives you the incentive to keep producing work. There were lots of publications that needed photographs, so I left engineering in 1980 and became the chief photographer for Black Beauty and Hair.”

By then, Gabriel had twin roles in the Notting Hill Carnival. He was one of the few photographers from the community documenting the event, and also a member of the Ebony steelband.

“As a Trinidadian, you want to know what it’s about, so I first went down to Ladbroke Grove in 1973, when there was only a few bands. Then I started off with Ebony on the cello pans, but always feeling that I need to be taking pictures. So I thought, I’ll take the easy way out and go in the engine section on congas, which leaves me that flexibility to jump off and pass the stick.”

As a new generation of players changed the band’s style, Gabriel broke away in 1983 to form the soft-focus Stardust band with Ebony’s former arranger, Randolph Baptiste. Stardust’s old-school sensibilities proved popular for the next decade, but in 1994, Gabriel was inspired to put pan aside and form the Misty Carnival Club. The band made an impact from the start, through presentations that harked back to the traditional mas of Trinidad.

“I guess I’m just from a different era, producing a hybrid of wire with traditional wirework,” Gabriel explains. Misty’s most impressive displays featured massive wire figures covered in tissue paper, which were so intricate that competitors often mistook them for fibreglass.

“I was doing tribal arts,” says Gabriel of his early designs for Misty, “and African art, it’s all about the ancestral and the spiritual. Again, I’m drawing on that aura that I’ve got around me, from the time I spent with my grandmother as a little boy. Because I was documenting Carnival for so many years, inside of me, I keep saying, ‘I’m sure you could contribute and raise the standard.’ And, probably because of my engineering background, I could see that it needed more structured work, but nobody want to take time to learn the technical side of it…I thought the onliest way I could respond is to go away and produce something visual.”

At the turn of the century, Gabriel decided to put Misty on hold and concentrate solely on crafting life-sized busts out of wire, which he aimed at the exhibition circuit.

“It reach a stage where I thought, I don’t need to be doing costumes. I’m going to teach, rather than compete. So I approached it in that way, where these are going to be shown in the highest national museums – that’s where I’m going to head.’

After exhibiting in the UK and USA, in 2003, Gabriel travelled to Kolkata, India, with fellow carnival designer Ali Pretty of Kinetika Arts, to collaborate with local artists on a project called Din Shuru, highlighting the city’s connections with the carnivals of Trinidad and Notting Hill. He found the experience inspiring, particularly because the local craftsmen were very highly skilled, despite being virtually penniless.

“That experience was very, very moving. It was a life-changing experience which strengthened me for the future.”

Gabriel’s most recent exhibition toured various London venues from August to November 2009. It included a traditional pan-round-the-neck player in shorts and hat; historical figures from ancient Egypt; the towering, partially-completed figure of a Wild Indian; and a Central African tribeswoman.

“I particular like her because of the shape of the head. They have this culture where, from the day a child is born, they wrap the head to make this cylindrical shape. Somehow, it invokes a lot of emotion. I see people shed tears when they look at it.”

Although wirebending is a dying art, Gabriel says he will continue to work with the form for the foreseeable future.

“It’s very time-consuming, so you’ve got to be at peace with yourself, you mustn’t be running down anything. Now I’m at a level, mentally and physically, to know that, if you bring something to me, I’ll just do it to the highest standard.”