The fifth edition of the Caravan Festival of the Arts, which kicked off Thursday, 9 May with an exhibition of 90 painted donkeys at the St. John's Church in Maadi, seeks to promote interfaith dialogue and challenge sectarian strife with a dynamic, weeklong cultural programme. Until 16 May, the 80-year-old church will host a series of cultural events, including talks by actor Amr Waked and author Alaa Al-Aswany, and a concert by renowned oud (lute) player Georges Kazazian.
Headlining the 2013 Caravan Festival is its visual arts element: a donkey pageant. On display at St. John's Church on opening night were fibreglass donkey artworks painted by 45 Egyptian and foreign artists, among them some of Egypt's most prominent contemporary artists including George Bahgoury, Mohamed Abla and Khaled Hafez.
Each of the 45 artists, hailing from countries across the globe – including Poland, Switzerland, the UK, Jordan, France and Norway – were given two fibreglass donkeys, a life-sized and a mini version, and were asked to paint them in their own style, while reflecting this year’s theme: 'In Peace and With Compassion…The Way Forward.' The donkey was chosen as an emblem of peace; in both Christianity and Islam, Jesus and the second Muslim caliph Omar Ibn El-Khattab rode donkeys into Jerusalem.
For two weeks, the donkeys, which are for sale, with twenty percent of their proceeds being donated to local charities that support the poor, will travel across Cairo. The artwork will pop up in various venues, including: hotels such as the Four Seasons, the Marriott and Sofitel; art galleries including downtown's Mashrabia, and six galleries in Zamalek; and at the British Council, the American University in Cairo and St. John's Church, among others. Then, 25 selected pieces of artwork will travel to exhibitions in London and Geneva, before being auctioned off in Europe, also to support Egyptian charities.
No one has probably been this excited over donkeys in a long time. Hundreds of visitors poured into St. John's Church on Thursday night, accompanied by excited children thrilled by the prospect of ogling life-size, and miniature, donkeys.
The full-sized donkeys were exhibited under a large tent in the courtyard dramatically encircled with haystacks, while the church itself was converted to an art gallery to host the 45 smaller donkeys.
Usually seen grey and meek roaming the streets of Cairo, the animals scheduled to roam the city this month have been rendered colourful and vibrant by participating artists. Alongside the well-known names of Egyptian artists such as Bahgoury and Abla, the paintbrushes of promising emerging artists such as street artist Keizer, sculptor/painter Maged Mekhail,and Ahmed Kassim, among others also caressed the donkeys.
Rector of St. John’s Church and festival director Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler, Swiss Ambassador to Egypt Dominik Furgler and religious dignitaries including Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, secretary-general of the Egyptian Council of Churches, Father Bishoy Helmy, and Sheikh Mohamed El-Hawwary, presided over the unveiling of the 90 painted donkeys, with their opening speech.
Reverend Chandler emphasised that the heart of this year's edition of the Caravan festival was the visual arts element, the painted donkeys, describing it as a "creative approach to public art" that reaffirms the role of art as a bridge for intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
"In many ways, these 45 artists, through this artistic initiative, are saying that the way forward for Egypt, with regards to all people of different faiths, and in Egypt's relationship with the rest of the world, is in peace, and with compassion," he said.
Ambassador Furgler also praised the "donkey" idea as a step towards religious peace in the turbulent Arab region. "Although I should, as a Swiss, prefer cows," he said, to laughter from the audience.
Sculpted animals have been painted in cities throughout the world both to raise money for charity and as public displays of art. The cow parade, for example, was launched in Zurich in 1986 and has since spread to Chicago, Tokyo, Prague and Stockholm, among other spots across the globe. An elephant parade also hit London in 2010.
The Swiss ambassador highlighted that while UN resolutions, international symposia and papers are important in nurturing mutual understanding and alleviating sectarian strife, it is art that is able to reach "the souls and minds of ordinary people of different backgrounds."
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis also hailed art as a language that penetrates the grassroots, in contrast to the academic and theological discussions over interfaith issues in which he is often engaged.
Addressing the bulging crowd, Al-Azhar representative Sheikh Mohamed El-Hawwary also stressed the importance of art as a uniting force, saying: "Islam is not against art. Art is a form of beauty…although we always prefer moral principles over aesthetics…To art that unites people, we say 'welcome'."
This exhibition is not a makeshift zoo made up exclusively of stagnant, multi-coloured donkeys. What is really striking was the artists' use of this unorthodox canvas to tell stories, raise issues and deliver messages.
French artist Anne-Francoise-Giraud adorned her donkeys with lace, accessories, coins and more. Her artist statement reveals that her donkeys reflect her understanding of peace. "Peace originated from the acknowledgement of the other, of others, and therefore from diversity," she says. "I wanted to express this idea by adorning my donkeys with a mosaic of colours, an interlacing of shapes, an assemblage of materials. Harmony arises from disparity; unity emerges from multitude."
Reflecting Egypt's politicised contemporary art scene, many donkeys carried political undertones, such as Khaled Hafez's "Red Lines" pair, which probe notions of censorship, taboos and freedom of thought.
And Reda Abdel-Rahman and Mohamed Abla both seem to satirise religious rule through their donkey projects. Abla's donkeys were painted grey, with piles of books strapped to their bodies. "Those who claim they worship Allah but do not follow His law are like donkeys that carry books and do not understand what they carry," reads his statement.
Abdel-Rahman, who actually sculpted the fibreglass donkeys and co-curated the exhibition, calls his project "The Renaissance Donkey." His large donkey's face bears an eerie similarity to President Morsi. "The front section represents a leader that is a face of an unhealthy troika: Financial authority and the religious fascism and military mafia," reads his statement.
The donkey murals carry no dearth of cultural, folkloric and revolutionary iconography. Christian symbols such as pomegranates (an icon for the church's congregation,) palm trees and dates (symbols for Coptic church martyrs), the famous poem by Abu al-Qasim Al-Shabi that ricocheted across Tunisian streets during the Jasmine Revolution in the winter of 2010 ('If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate must answer their call'), and ancient Egyptian gods, among many other images, appeared on the tinted skins of the animals.