[Episcopal News Service] The arts may be one of the most effective mediums for building bridges, says the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, the Episcopal priest responsible for the journey of 25 life-size painted fiberglass donkeys from Cairo to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where they will be on display in the south nave aisle until Sept. 23.
Now in its fifth year, the Caravan arts exhibition brings together Western and Egyptian artists, both Christian and Muslim, to promote a message of peace.
Chandler, an Episcopal Church mission partner who has served as a priest in Cairo for the past 10 years, sees the exhibition as an opportunity to deepen understanding across cultures and religions.
“We’re passionate about interfaith friendships and we’ve found that the arts, in many ways, is a catalyst for that,” Chandler told ENS on Aug. 30 during an interview at the launch of the exhibition, which is titled In Peace and With Compassion.
The donkey was chosen for the exhibition because in both Christian and Muslim faith traditions it represents peace, Chandler explained. “In a sense, these artists are saying that the way forward for us is in peace. The other thing the donkey represents is compassion. It’s a beast of burden and the poorest of the poor in Egypt use the donkey.”
This year’s exhibition comes at a time when Egypt faces ongoing political turmoil and a rise in sectarian violence.
“Contrary often to what we see in the news about what is coming out of Egypt at this time, which is somewhat tragic, these artists are saying no, there is another alternative – the way forward as far as we see it is in peace and with compassion,” Chandler said.
It’s the first time the initiative has traveled outside of Egypt and the exhibition at St. Paul’s is sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland in Egypt, and supported by the British Council. Chandler said that St. Paul’s Cathedral was considered for the exhibition because it is a sacred space known globally for both its role in the arts and its commitment to interfaith relations.
“St. Paul’s is right in the heart of a very cosmopolitan city where we are all trying to live together and to be loyal to our future that we’re sharing,” said the Rev. Canon Mark Oakley, chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, “and I think that is the strength of this exhibition – Muslim and Christian seeking to be loyal to the future of their country through working harmoniously and creatively, and I can’t think of any better model for our own city here.”
The donkeys were first exhibited in May at St. John’s Church in Cairo, where Chandler has just stepped down as rector after 10 years. They were then placed in strategic public locations throughout Cairo before about a third of them made their way to St. Paul’s.
Oakley said that he hopes people who visit the exhibition will find the donkeys “beautiful and I hope they will remember the people of Egypt at the moment and I hope it will help them reflect on how they in their own localized life … will think again about the human and about the things we share and about the future we share and how we need to … be almost recklessly generous in our friendships.”
Following the exhibition, the donkeys will be auctioned by Sotheby’s, with all profits going to Egyptian charities that serve the poor, regardless of their faith.
Chandler said that in addition to the high-level art, it’s important that the initiative influences the poor. In Egypt, “we’ve identified 25 charities that are grassroots in their orientation, that work both on the Christian and Muslim side, serving the poor regardless of their creed.”
Further information about Caravan is available here.
— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service.