“Qarboush: Echoes of Naguib Mahfouz” is the humorous title of one of the most exciting exhibitions I have seen lately. The work of Italian artist Carmine Cartolano aka Qarm Qart, recreates Mahfouz’s Trilogy in the form of fezzes – tarbooshes. Thirty of them hung from the ceiling, each embroidered with drawings to reflect a theme and accompanied by a quote.
Mamnu’ (Not Allowed), for example – accompanied by a moment of repressed desire in the novel – is wrapped in spike wire and placed in a transparent box. Another tarboosh, referring to the proverb “The calf has fallen, fetch the knife”, features a knife motif.
A third, cheerful, is butterfly themed, reflecting a quote about the butterfly’s beauty from Palace of Desire. Where Aisha chases a headless chicken in Sugar Street, there is a humorous tarboosh with three headless chicken, their heads flying about. Embroidered hands on actual prayer beads or the anti-British protest slogan resurrected during the Arab Spring – “Bread and Liberty” – complete the picture.
Cartolano, who has lived here for 18 years, calls himself “a mix of Masry and Italiano”. has published two books in Egyptian Arabic, (the first called Masriano) that show a deep understanding of the Egyptian psyche and culture. He has also translated Mohamed Abdel-Naby’s In the Spider’s Nest to Italian. I think it’s possible to tackle psychological and social issues and still be light-hearted and funny.”
Cartolano would easily have passed for a tarboosh-wearing Egyptian effendi of the 1940s. And he is passionate about the headgear. “It felt classy when I first put it on, then I thought, But I could add embroidery, restyle the tarboosh. I do want people to wear it again, why not. It’s a beautiful thing to wear and there is no national dress for Egypt. There is the galabiya, but few people wear it.”
“While reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy, I visualised these links between his words and the tarboosh. I find Mahfouz very contemporary; he dealt with everything, traditions, history, relationships. He even talked about revolution, about the need for bread and freedom, which is the slogan of the 25 January revolution. I chose the trilogy because it is like a saga, a lot of thoughts, drama, and a unique way of telling the stories, illustrating Mahfouz’s Cairo. So, every time I found a stimulating quote, I would draw a sketch on paper, and when I was done reading, I had quite a few sketches.”
Born in Salerno in southern Italy in 1972, the artist studied Arabic and Persian at the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples. He never studied visual art, but developed a passion for colours and embroidery. “I had always wanted to study languages, but I did not like to study French or English. I found Arabic more challenging. I was curious to know more about Arab culture.”
After a period of wandering, he decided to come to Egypt to teach Italian. Now a professor of Italian at the Faculty of Arts, Helwan University and the Italian Culture Centre as well as a translator and a writer, he makes a strong case for the Italian connection.
“I was raised in Napoli. There are a lot of similarities between Cairo and Napoli, such as the behaviour of people, the crazy traffic, the overcrowded places. I am usually inspired by the city of Cairo. I am never tired of exploring new things and places in Cairo. I always find something to write down by the end of the day. I feel more alive in Cairo than anywhere else. When I start losing this feeling about Cairo, I will definitely leave and find another country.”
Where there is no embroidery the tarboosh becomes part of a Pop Art-like collage, sometimes with a plastic toy attached to it: a pigeon surrounded by grass. “I once came across a place in Ataba Square where you can find beautiful and cheap toys. It is where I found the pigeon, and then I started looking for the grass, which I found in another place called Haret El Mezayyen, downtown. I love toys. I have a lot of them at home; I borrowed some of them for this exhibition. It is a perfect place for any installation artist.” Embroidery on solid, uneven wool is difficult, and requires a drawing in pencil.
Cartolano’s approach is sarcastic. “I try to make people laugh and meditate simultaneously. Life is so complicated, so if you remain depressed or sad you won’t go anywhere. By laughing and understanding, you get positive energy. I love it when people see my work and smile, and then go back home and think about the content. Mahfouz’s style, so light-hearted and funny in places, gave me the courage to show more sarcasm.”
Cartolano’s debut exhibition, “2kitching” was held in 2007 at Mashrabiya Art Gallery. It has been followed by many other exhibitions in Cairo, Alexandria and London. “Restart” (2015) featured digital photo collages around the concept of the maze. “I lived in Munira at that time, and downtown was like a maze to me, with garbage, mess and cement walls. It was also one year after the death of my father, and that was like an inner maze. I started to look more inside, and I figured out that I needed to ‘restart’.” Earlier, “What If” (2011) featured cut-ups of people, signalling liberation and laughter as well as poetry.
Does he expect these fezzes to sell? “We’ve already sold two,” he answered smilingly. “I believe it could be a nice decoration at home, just like a beautiful painting.”
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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