In Cairo, Arab and Western artists wage peace

Interfaith art exhibition builds bridges between cultures, religions
February 2, 2009

With the goal of building understanding and respect between cultures and faiths, the creative work of 18 Arab and Western artists was officially unveiled on January 29 at St. John the Baptist Anglican/Episcopal Church in the suburban Maadi district of Cairo, Egypt.

"On a Caravan: East and West journeying together through the arts," which runs through February 5, is the brainchild of the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, a U.S. Episcopal mission partner who has served as rector of St. John's since 2003.

Chandler hopes the week-long event will highlight how the visual arts "can serve as one of the most effective mediums of building bridges of friendship and sharing between the Middle East and West."

Launching the event in the presence of 300 diplomats, academics and Egyptian business professionals, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey said she was impressed with the richness, depth and variety of interpretation in the artists' work, which was conveyed mostly through paintings on canvas. She said that President Barack Obama "is very much in sync with the inspiration" of the event and quoted a recent interview in which he said, "Regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Jews, Christians, Muslims and even non-believers -- people still have common hopes and common desires." Such hopes and shared dreams, Scobey said, "are quite evident in the works" of the exhibition.

Roland Prime, an artist from the U.K. who has lived in Cairo for five years, said the concept behind "On the Caravan" is that everyone is on a journey together. "Religion can be political and exclusive," he said, "so this is a testament to how people of faith can get along."

Egyptian artist Farid Fadel said that having so many works displayed side by side "demonstrates peaceful coexistence."

Fadel was raised in the Coptic Orthodox Church and became Presbyterian before finding his home in the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East in his mid-20s. He said the exhibition has created a "rhythm for the future. It shows the qualities of mutual respect, love and acceptance."

Many of the artists had not met one another before being invited to participate in the exhibition. "It has been a wonderful opportunity for us to meet together, share together and make friends on this journey," said Fadel.

Hisham El Zeiny, an Egyptian Muslim, described the event as the "carpet of life. I feel like I'm part of a much larger thing. Paul has created an artists' community from many individuals who had often been used to working in isolation. This has very strong dynamics which we hope will jump over to the audience as well."

Zeiny acknowledged that artists are used to critical environments. "It is reassuring to find a peaceful approach and space for art," he said.

St. John's Church largely serves the international diplomatic, non-governmental organization, academic and business communities, as well as Egyptians, and it includes a broad cross-section of denominations. "In addition to serving the international community of Cairo, St. John's serves as a unique bridge and catalyst for Christian/Muslim and East/West relations due to the local respect it has developed over the last 76 years with the senior Islamic authorities," said Chandler.

Chandler's vision is for the interfaith exhibition to be the start of "new artistic initiatives to expand intercultural and interreligious dialogue."

Swiss artist Dorian Haqmoun agrees. "Wherever you live there is segregation and wherever you are you can build bridges," he said. "I hope that this is a beginning and not an end because there is so much more that can be done from this starting point."

The 18 artists each produced two pieces of work. The first focused on the commonalities between Middle East and West, Muslim and Christian and emphasized "building bridges" between the two. In the second piece of artwork, the building of St. John's Church was chosen to inspire their artistic expressions.

Internationally renowned Egyptian Muslim artist Mohammed Abla said, "I am living this bridge. As a Muslim, I married a Christian, and I profoundly believe in this idea of using art to build an alliance of understanding and friendship."

The participating artists include:

Egypt & Middle East
Mohamed Abla (Egypt)
Dr. Reda Abdel Rahman (Egypt)
Omar El Fayoumi (Egypt)
Hany Rashid (Egypt)
Dr. Farid Fadel (Egypt)
Maher Ali (Egypt)
Hisham El Zeiny (Egypt)
Mansour Ahmed (Egypt)
Randa Fakes-LoGerfo (Jordan/America)

The West
Dorian Haqmoun (Switzerland)
Julie Oxenforth (U.K.)
Isolde Kadry (Egypt/Germany)
Maria Maher (USA)
Roland Prime (U.K.)
Connie Fiorelli (Australia)
Lucy Westwood (U.K.)
Kimberly Odekirk (USA)
Anne du Boistesselin (France)

Further information about the artists, including images of their work, is available here.


-- Matthew Davies is editor of Episcopal Life Online and international correspondent of Episcopal News Service.