Kathleen Purvis

Artist Robert Karimi uses food to draw in audiences

By Kathleen Purvis



Susan Sontag’s quote “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous” hangs on the wall in the basement at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation on North Tryon Street.

You have to wonder if knives, paper hats and sriracha-flavored Cheerios were what she had in mind.

McColl Center

Karimi is spending a couple of months in Charlotte doing a variety of things to get people talking about eating and eating while talking.

“All the work I do is participatory,” Karimi says. “I call myself an experience designer. What I’m trying to get people to do is exchange wisdom with each other. My art form is part community engagement, part performance and part design.”

Sometimes, Karimi brings people into his studio to make lunch. Sometimes, he organizes bike trips.

On Thursday night, Karimi’s design involved a lot of things. There was Karimi himself, wearing a red chef’s jacket, shorts and knee-high bee-hive socks and reciting poetry based on food jingles. There were four volunteer chefs, who kept things moving, kept fingers uncut and kept things cleaned up.

There were six long tables, where people put on paper hats and split into teams of friends and strangers. They were given 10 minutes to collectively create a dish from ingredient lists that read like a college student’s dietary nightmare. One involved broccoli, asparagus, tabbouleh, black beans, fresh lychees, cotija cheese, spinach, chipotle peppers, sesame oil and balsamic vinegar.

There was a Poet’s Corner where the non-cooks wrote poems that involved lots of colored pens and food metaphors. There were two real poets, Hannah Hasan and CarlosAlexis Cruz, reading poems such as “Safe Place” and “I Hate the World,” which involved a windup toy cockroach.

There was chaos. And spills. But sometimes, you have to let art flow over you, even if it’s balsamic vinegar flowing over a tablecloth.

There was also creation, if you include a surprisingly tasty dressing of tofu, beer, fenugreek and a serrano pepper that one team whipped up in a blender.

Katelyn Greer, 16, wore a GoPro video camera on her head while she chopped. Katelyn, from Sherrill’s Ford, came with her whole family – her father, David, her mother, Nicole, and her brother, Kent, 21, who drove down from Boone, where he goes to Appalachian State University. (It wasn’t a hard decision, he said: “It was negative 12 up there this morning.”)

Finally, there was competition, which is certainly an art form in American life. The winning team really rose to the challenge with the dessert round, which had to include sriracha, tahini (sesame seed paste), Greek yogurt, Cheerios, garbanzo beans, flour tortillas, graham cracker crumbs, sugar, coconut and a cucumber.

Their creation: Hot Sugar Cheesecake Parfait, with a bottom layer of Cheerios tossed with sriracha and sugar. That part was so tasty that volunteer chef Lena Halabi, who is visiting from Minneapolis, said she would take the idea with her when she goes back to work.

It’s not an empty threat, people. Halabi works for General Mills in Minnesota. Sriracha-frosted cereal could be in your future.

OK, now you can get nervous.

Purvis: 704-358-5236

More events with Robert Karimi

▪ Viva La Bicycle Parade + Progressive Food Party, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 28: Karimi leads food-related discussions and activities followed by a bicycle ride around uptown. Includes food samples and nutrition information.

▪ Viva La Cook Triple Crown Grill Off + Food Wisdom Day, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. March 7. Includes a barbecue contest and audience participation to make and discuss family dishes.

Details: Location: 7th Street Public Market. www.mccollcenter.org, 704-332-5535.