By Chitra Kalyani
“I don’t need a perfect picture,” says Qarm Qart, “I need a perfect subject. A man. A pose.” The rest “doesn’t matter, because I cut it.”
Collage is Qarm’s means of creating an alternative reality, of taking scissors to the ugliness of this world and embroidering the rest with beads, glitter and sequins.
Art is then naturally the way the Italian artist deals with the disappointments and imperfections he encounters. “It’s a sad world,” says Carmine Cartolano, who goes by the shortened moniker Qarm Qart. “So I thought I would like to have another world.”
Qarm is all for playing with pictures. “I think it’s fun!”
A quartet in his new exhibit “If,” currently showing at Mashrabia Gallery, presents a sequined Hosni Mubarak in every picture, showing the ousted president as a comic-book hero, a pirate and a devil, respectively. The final sequined picture, titled “What if…we didn’t take off the ‘rayyes’ pictures from the street?”, shows Mubarak as a clown.
Soundtrack names — originally intended to be heard on headphones at the exhibit — accompany all pictures, accentuating or sometimes playing against the mood of the piece. The clown picture of the ‘rayyes’ is referenced with “Jeux d’enfants” (Children’s games) by Cirque du Soleil.
Beauty becomes an expression of respect towards life for Qarm, “I think it’s important to respect our life.” Speaking about his own works, he says, “It’s all about respect… When I put Mubarak [in the pictures], I respect him, too.”
“Sometimes I feel there is too much violence in the relationships,” says the artist, who says he has stopped watching news. “It’s awful. It’s ugly.”
With equal respect, Qarm provides the subjects in his art what they lack in life. A street child is offered cotton clouds with silver glitter, reminiscent of the softness and comfort of a bed. A street soldier, whom Qarm points out has been standing in the sun — “look at the light on his face” — is provided with the shade of a tall stalk at the end of which is a flower. Instead, little pink pigs occupy the huts meant to provide shade for soldiers.
Fuchsia pigs make a special appearance in many of the pictures of the “If’ exhibit. Signifying a world where all is possible, pigs quite literally ‘fly’ in the balloons held by a young boy in the picture titled, “What if…all the children had toys?”
Yet Qarm has other reasons for choosing this special breed. “What if…the ‘Animal Farm’ was not just a book?” asks one illustration. Representing the quality of greed, the Orwellian pigs warn that the next government may not be better than the one before.
Also, using animals is an unusual means of coping with his phobia. “I am afraid of animals,” admits the artist, who used camels in his previous exhibit.
In 2007, Qarm held an exhibit with well-known Italian photographer Derno Ricci. Presented by the duo “dernocarmine,” the exhibit was titled “2kitching,” referring to the “kitsch” art made of “kitchen” artifacts.
Two pictures in the current exhibit are a tribute to the late artist. “What if…Derno was here?” uses a background of cabbages, also used during the exhibit “2kitching,” showing leaders ousted from Egypt and Italy. “He would’ve been happy to see Mubarak and Berlusconi away,” says Qarm, remembering the Derno with affection.
It was with Derno Ricci that Qarm first produced his unique collage work of art. In 2002, Derno presented his black-and-white pictures of animals at Mashrabia. Qarm recounts how he had taken a print with which Derno was unhappy.
Qarm glued pink and fuchsia beads on the camels’ bridles, and inscribed verses of Italian poetry with smudged kohl on the picture. The stripes with which Ricci was displeased appeared a deliberate manipulation, and it was the first picture to be sold in Derno’s 2002 exhibit. Qarm produced many works with Derno since, but his name only appeared first in 2007.
“I was protected by his fame,” says Qarm of Derno, expressing his anxiety at newspapers’ recent conjectures regarding his politics. While Qarm’s art boldly tackles religion and women’s treatment, the artist himself refuses to be drawn into controversy. A few pictures were removed by Qarm when he realized the audiences may be sensitive to these issues
Two pieces in Qarm’s work reveal symbols of religion collaged into symbols of violence: guns come together to form a cross, and the crescent moon turns into a sickle.
“I think everybody should believe in God in the right way,” says Qarm, pointing to another picture, simply titled “Allah.” Unlike all the others titled with the prefix “What if..”, this picture, simply titled “Allah,” does not employ any collage. It recalls a moment when Qarm turned the lens on a wall with calligraphy at Ibn Tulun mosque and focused on the word “Allah,” a surreal and spiritual moment for him.
Compassion overflows in the works of Qarm Qart. All subjects are treated with equal respect — be they Om Kolthoum who makes subtle appearances in some backgrounds, or the pigs that the artist fears, or soldiers, army personnel and leaders now shunned by their countries.
In glitter on a triptych are three words that play on the insistent demand of previous months, saying instead “Elshaab yehtag nizaam” — people want order.
Softly and gently, Qarm speaks of a world providing an alternative, where otherwise stifled voices are heard and marginalized faces are seen. “If” provides the possibility in which the world one dreams of come to be in art.
Qarm Qart’s “If” runs through July 7, open daily 11 am-8 pm (except Fridays). Mashrabia Gallery, 8 Champollion St., Downtown, Cairo.