Blending Prada and Lady Gaga
encounters collage and kitsch resonant with a radical ring by a sensitive artist from seaside Salerno, the self-styled Qarm Qart
Carmine Cartolano Òê" Qarm Qart is his Arabised Facebook nickname Òê" draws the 25 January Revolution closer to a reckoning. His artworks risk leaving the revolution rudderless, though. Ex-President Hosni Mubarak as a clown with a gleeful smirk, sporting a gaudy golden suit Òê" gold thread and glitter and God knows what. His art is a ravishing route to revolutionary truths. His broad brush brushes aside risk when he craves drawing a line in the sand.
Quaintness is part of Qarm Qart's charm. He brings a deliciously laid-back italianita to post-revolution Cairo. Every image he depicts, in whatever medium, texture or fibre, is a love-torn god or goddess. He goes for the strongest of feelings with the greatest of force that belies the simplicity that marks all his work. His idiosyncrasy, h owever, gives a misleading impression of his works of art, which are as sophisticated and up-to-the-minute as his models are endearingly behind the times.
Mocking and shocking, Qarm Qart does not necessarily go in search of laughs. Every single piece of art has a soundtrack to sing along with it. They combine to great effect. "I wanted the music to play on the opening day," Qarm Qart shrugs his shoulders in exasperation. So it was not altogether surprising that his novel idea did not quite work up to plan.
It was not a question of decibels, although some viewers were inclined to stop their ears, I suppose. He is a teacher, an amateur photographer, and in a spirited bid for a wider audience is prepared to sing, or at least put song to a particular work. He is meticulous with the audacious lyrics that come face to face with uncomfortable truths about conventional wisdom, and especially sparing when it comes to the matrix of life, water. There is precious little of it, for he points out that he is no painter.
His exhibition, a series of thought-provoking images, is mostly derived from the 25 January Revolution and so naturally found a neat resonance in the Mashrabiya Gallery of Contemporary Arts in Downtown Cairo, a stone's throw from Tahrir Square. "I was inspired to stage this exhibition because of the revolution," he says. The Mubarak presidency had a lot to answer for.
There may be trouble ahead, but the shambles begins not with Mubarak cloistered as a clown, but when Lady Gaga starts prowling around with faceless women in the niqab, the top-to-toe shapeless black burqa, and policemen strut about in stiletto heels. Men, women and statuettes are strewn in various states of undress.
Lady Gaga and the nonentity in the niqab surrounded by society ladies Òê" a punk in a red and black plume and a blonde with a shock of straw-coloured woollen thread wrapped like a warp around the shapeless head of the figurine and exposed as the fringe. The weird hairdo is speckled with bright orange flowers and a blushing pink pig. Knots hold them in place.
The red ribbon Lady Gaga sports is, of course, the symbol of the global fight against HIV/AIDS. Lady Gaga's hair is a halo of white wool in weft-like threads placed most peculiarly like an asymmetrical piece of headgear on the statuette's crest.
The statuette with a beauty spot, green eyes and turquoise eye-shadow is arresting. A broken nose punctuates her disfigurement and visual offensiveness. Yet she displays an intriguing physical intensity. Her head is like the smooth curve of a bottle placed upside-down. "I love kitsch," Cartolano quips. Like Lady Gaga's snowy crown of light [is something missing here?]she zaps the forces of darkness.
The Lady Gaga masterpiece is a showstopper. Reminiscent of Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, the husband and wife team behind Italian luxury group Prada, there is a perfect partnership between the four women. Qarm Qart's work approaches the observer in person and the four women posing in diametrically opposed attire, like prostitutes, are tough to love.
At first glance it all looks like an inexplicable mess. So how does he select such mismatching materials and contrasting colours? "I go around with my camera, taking pictures of Cairo, or rather Cairenes. I don't particularly care for the composition, the complete picture; what I care about is the object or person I cut out to add to my own work."
Carmine Cartolano's works veer sharply from the homoerotic to the womanlike; never ladylike, though. Above all it is a serious treatment of ordinary Egyptians by an Italian who is certainly no Orientalist.
Qarm Qart arbitrarily decided to become an artist after the 25 January Revolution. He never actually studied art.
He uses tweezers, instead of scissors, to project the feminine mystique. "The lilac light of my laptop in the background is for real Òê" not photoshop," he extrapolates. Glitter and sequin abound.
The two languorous young men from Wadi Al-Gimal, "are friends", but there is more of a hint of the homosexual aesthete in the manner in which their arms are entangled in self-conscious abandon.
With the deep-seated warmth of his timbre, Qarm Qart began his extrapolation in acoustic mode. He understands that both Egypt and Italy have history on their side. Collage critics are sniffy and the barricades are still up in baroque and rococo Cairo galleries after the convulsions of the 25 January Revolution. There is a long history of collage being trashed into artistic dross. What if we "Learn from History"? The soundtrack, "Sugar" by Tom Amos, is dominated by a sickle-looking crescent and a star. He is not starry-eyed about the revolution.
Rough-hewn spontaneity comes easily to Cartolano. "Al-Shaab Yahtag Al-Nizam" is a play on words as much as it is an experiment in visual stratagem, an optical ruse.
"Maiale, or porco," he chips in. "And porco is also a loathsome lout in Italian, too. It added up to something more primaeval. Swine is the symbol of the sinister.
Animal Farm, with a few nods to psychoanalysis, lies not just in depicting what happened to Egypt under Mubarak, but how and why the revolution happened.
The man with his hand fondling his private parts, looking askance at a cross composed of twin adjacent AK-47s, is an affront to the religious. The soundtrack to go along with such kitsch is "Light My Fire" by The Doors, the rowdiest track of the encore in my humble opinion, and things could hardly get worse with such obscenity.
There is no getting away from it, though. It is lewd, but it is not pornography. And, like it or not, it is a common gesture in the country. It is as if the artist tries to reach beyond reality to express what might have been an ordinary male citizen's inner experience.
Playing the fool does not mean you are not pulling your weight. Mubarak as a clown, then as the Devil incarnate, "Diavolo". The accompanying soundtrack in none other than Souad Massi's "Bladi, My Country".
My favourite Qarm Qart Mubarak take is the ex-president as Zorro, and the soundtrack Cartolano chooses for this particular collage is "Un bel di vedremo", "One Day We'll Say", Madame Butterfly's aria sung by the legendary diva Maria Callas. Mubarak's sequined mask, with luminescent crimson sticker and woollen hat, is hilarious. "Un bel di vedremo" remains a timeless classic as evocative as ever. It is the perfect Zorro soundtrack. The four Mubaraks seem to be having a ball as grumpy old curmudgeons at a fancy dress party. Qarm Qart feigned to be rheumy-eyed when he mused about Zorro, or rather Mubarak as Zorro, who appeared as spry as Anthony Quinn himself complete with calibrated rumblings.
Cartolano draws on sounds and images of nostalgic vulnerability and encumbrance to express a vision of the essence of an eternal Egyptian humanity. "What if Children Could Live their Childhood?" The soundtrack is, not surprisingly, "Elisa's Lullaby". "I met this boy, a child beggar on the beach at Mersa Allam. He wanted some spare cash and all I could do was take his photograph and give him some money and a meal." The background is a piercing cerulean blue. The boy's beautiful brown face is specked with sand.
A series of works with soldiers catch my attention. One in particular is obscenely provocative at first glance. It seems like one soldier sodomising another with an oval shaped sun against a pitch black background. "No, it is not what you are thinking," Qarm Qart reads my thoughts. This is one person, not two.
"What if We Stand Together for Peace?" Soundtrack: "Tajabone" by Senegalese singer Ismael Lo in Pedro Almodavar's bombshell Todo Sobre Mi Madre, "Everything About My Mother" is the soundtrack to go with this controversial and somewhat queasy composition.[two soundtracks? I don't get this]
Then there is the lone soldier playing with his mobile phone with the suitable soundtrack "Kifak Inta", "How Are You", by Fairuz. Surprisingly he does not lack the emotional depth and edgy appeal of the divine Lebanese diva herself.
"Can't Stand Losing You" by The Police is the soundtrack Qarm Qart picks for his poignant piece of art "What if We Smile?" And we're back to square one. "What if there is No Sexual Harassment?" And, the soundtrack? "Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga, no less.
This is not the first time the Mashrabiya Gallery has sprung the unconventional on an unsuspecting public. The unorthodox gallery has once again staged an unforgettable fiesta of passionate intensity and brilliance.
Last but not least is a confession. On closer inspection, Qarm Qart comes not from Salerno, but from the scenic surrounding hillocks, from Buonabitacolo, buono da abitare, Good to Live In, is his hometown, closer to Basilicata than to Naples.