Caravan – An Interview With Rev Paul Gordon Chandler On Arts Peacebuilding

Boushra Hijab Series

CARAVAN is the international intercultural and interreligious peacebuilding arts NGO which has brought I AM, an art exhibition showcasing the insights and experiences of Middle Eastern women, to London. In this interview Rev Jonathan Evens speaks to the President and Founder of CARAVAN, Rev Paul-Gordon Chandler, about its work and use of the Arts. Paul-Gordon is an author, interfaith advocate, social entrepreneur, art curator and a U.S. Episcopal priest who has lived and worked in the Middle East for many years.

Echoing the words of Paul Klee, “Art doesn’t reflect what we see; it makes us see”.’

Paul-Gordon explained that most CARAVAN exhibitions have a humanitarian focus.  Some have been more general (i.e. harmony, compassion, hope, etc.) in theme and others more specific. Their focus in all these exhibitions is on what we have in common. His work is also part of a ‘profound resurgence today in the importance of art in the Church, and an embrace of contemporary art as a means of communicating that which can’t be communicated in any other way, echoing the words of Paul Klee, “Art doesn’t reflect what we see; it makes us see”.’

RJE: CARAVAN began as a peace-building initiative which grew out of your church-based ministry in Cairo. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of CARAVAN?

RPG: Yes, CARAVAN very much originated “out of Egypt” while I was serving as the Rector of the international Episcopal church there in southern Cairo (2003-2013).  However, in some ways too, it goes back much further to my own background. I grew up in the beautiful country of Senegal, West Africa, as a minority within an Islamic context, and spent my first 19 years there.  As most of my best friends growing up were Muslim, early on I became passionate about the importance of building bridges between those of different faith backgrounds.

In regard to the arts, Senegal is the artistic capital of West Africa. It’s known widely for its poetry, visual art, and its music, a genre called Mbalax, A number of internationally renowned musicians came out of my neighborhood, such as Youssou N’Dour. So, I grew up in a very artistic and creative environment.

However, it wasn’t until many years later, when I was working in Egypt and we were focusing on interfaith dialogue and intercultural (East-West) exchange that these two passions of mine came together.  We were involved in interfaith activities with Al Azhar, the intellectual and spiritual heart of Sunni Islam, but in the stereotypical interreligious dialogue programmes – forums, panels, seminars, lectures, etc.  And to be quite frank, not only were we not communicating beyond a certain academic and religious audience, it became tremendously boring.

As I knew a number of well-known Egyptian artists, and as we could see that the chasm of misunderstanding between the creeds and cultures of the Middle East and West was growing, we quite instinctively decided to hold an interfaith arts festival, based around a visual art exhibition in Cairo.  There were twenty artists involved in our first exhibition in 2009 which was titled “On a Caravan”….with the idea that we are all journeying together through the arts.  And we were completely taken back at the response, with many thousands attending from around the city.

Very quickly we began to see how the arts can be a universal language that has the ability to dissolve the differences that divide people when used proactively for that purpose.  Every year after that we held the CARAVAN Festival of Arts, a city-wide interfaith arts festival, involving music, literature, and film, around the centrepiece, which was a visual art exhibition involving many of most respected artists in Egypt first, and then eventually from around the Middle East.  Individuals such as the late legendary actor, Omar Sharif, were very helpful to us in those early days of CARAVAN.

It wasn’t until 2013, two years after the “Egyptian Revolution,” that our CARAVAN exhibition journeyed outside of Egypt.  Titled “In Peace and with Compassion,” it was a public art exhibition of 50 painted life-size fiberglass donkeys that were placed all around Cairo, as the donkey is a symbol of peace and compassion in both Christianity and Islam.  The exhibition then traveled to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, with the donkeys all lined up in the side nave caravanning in the direction between Mecca and Jerusalem.  The response truly overwhelmed us.  It was around then that CARAVAN developed into a peacebuilding arts NGO, with the objective of building bridges through the arts between the creeds and cultures of the Middle East and West.

Our flagship initiative is the CARAVAN Exhibition of Art, an annual or bi-annual traveling East-West peacebuilding art exhibition that begins in the Middle East and travels to the West, which brings together premier and emerging artists from throughout the Middle East, and sometimes West, around a chosen theme promoting harmony and greater understanding. Each CARAVAN exhibition serves as a catalyst for the development of a wide range of other artistic events and programmes planned around the exhibition to stimulate discussion, dialogue, and education, promoting further understanding.

Birth of Man' by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko.
“Mother” by Maitha Demithan (Scanography), ©Maitha Demithan

RJE: Why did it seem appropriate to contribute towards peacebuilding through art?

RPG: We quickly discovered that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, as well as develop and deepen friendships between those of different faiths and cultures…. changing negative perceptions, alleviating fears and creating lasting change in the quest for harmony, coexistence, and peace.

There is something “transcendent” about art.  Art creates a new pathway of understanding that transcends differences, having the power to strike us on a deep, subconscious level.  Art takes us into that deeper dimension, echoing how Anish Kapoor, the renowned British-Indian sculptor, described his work when he said, “I am attempting to dig away at . . . the great mystery of being.”  Art invites us to re-imagine ourselves, our situations, our internal narratives.  Art can remind us of what makes us most human.

One of the secrets of using the medium of the arts in peacebuilding is that art is “indirect” in its approach to addressing very difficult and challenging issues.  And as a result, the all-too-often defensive walls are not raised.  As an indirect catalyst, art creates a safe and equalizing space in which to begin real dialogue, and sensitively addresses negative stereotypes of the “other.”

Time and time again, we have seen the words of the 14th century Persian poet and mystic Hafiz to be true: “Art is the conversation…Art offers an opening for the heart….Art is, at least, the knowledge of where we are standing….In this Wonderland…We are partners straddling the universe.”

RJE: In what ways can art be a bridge between different communities, whether faith or ethnic communities?

RPG: In the midst of the all-too-often widening divides of discord and misapprehension between creeds and cultures, I believe a new movement is needed now more than ever: not of belief, or of cultural or religious unity, but one that creatively builds on what we hold in common. Art allows us to see similarity within difference, offering a mode of reconciliation toward a new vision and experience of coexistence, proactively bringing about a sectarian-free world.

I believe the arts provide new pathways of understanding that transcend borders and differences.  CARAVAN’s goal through these “creative demonstrations of dialogue and peacebuilding” is not just more dialogue or greater understanding, but something much deeper, seeing the establishment of intercultural and interreligious friendships.

To us, the aim of art is always higher than art… for it can help us see someone different than ourselves for whom they really are – that they are like us.  As Kahlil Gibran, the early 20th-century Lebanese writer, painter, and mystic, and author of The Prophet, so powerfully wrote: “Your neighbour is your other self-dwelling behind a wall.  In understanding, all walls shall fall down.”

As a result, because of the transformative power of art, these artistic initiatives become “encounter points,” bringing diverse peoples together that would normally never come together, to gain insights into the ‘other’ and alleviate fears that exist. And there are numerous inspiring stories that have come out of these peacebuilding artistic initiatives, where profound relationships have been developed between those of different faith backgrounds at the grassroots levels.

At CARAVAN, we see the arts as able to profoundly embody a fundamental message of harmony, serving as a common starting point on which to build, toward seeing the development of societies that inherently respect and honour cultural and religious diversity, living and working peacefully together.

RJE: One concern which is sometimes voiced with such initiatives is that peacebuilding takes precedence over art, making work and exhibitions didactic. How are such concerns explored and addressed within CARAVAN’s work?

RPG: Yes, our exhibitions provide an insight into the world of the artists and aim to achieve greater understanding through the exploration of stereotypes and prejudices. The art acts as a catalyst, stimulating thought and discussion giving visitors an opportunity to discover and digest alternative points of view.

We are very sensitive to the danger of the art becoming didactic. We see this happen in other places if too narrow a theme is selected and if too many restrictions are placed on the artist.  This is why we do our best to keep the theme of our group exhibitions as broad as possible.  Equally it is fundamental that the artist has total freedom to do whatever she or he wish to do according to that broader theme.

For example, in our current touring exhibition, titled I AM, you will find a tremendous amount of variety in the work of the 31 participating Middle Eastern women artists, and in what they are communicating.

RJE: What is the basis on which curators and artists are selected for CARAVAN’s exhibitions?

RPG: The deepest criteria for participants in our artistic initiatives is that they share our goals of promoting peace and understanding between the creeds and cultures of the East and West.  Additionally, we always aim to invite a wide selection of artists from different artistic and cultural backgrounds to showcase human diversity and creativity. In addition, we also look for experience, accomplishment and the overall combination to produce a meaningful, transformative exhibition.

For example, in the I AM exhibition, the women artists of Middle Eastern origin participating in I AM are acclaimed artists, with several noted emerging artists.  They cover a broad geographic area throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  And there is a great variety of artistic mediums represented: painting, drawing, collage, photography, digital art, mixed media and three-dimensional work.

To date, we have not had an open call for artists, but rather specific artists are identified, approached and invited to participate.

RJE: To what extent is religion or belief a factor in the selection of curators, artists or artwork?

In the Middle East, we address both the creeds and cultures at the same time, as the region does not take a dualistic approach, separating them, as is usually done in the West.  In the Middle East, whether Muslim or Christian, religion and culture are seen as inherently intertwined. Therefore, “the word intercultural” or the term “East-West” can embody both. And we tend to approach our exhibitions this way.  We do however work toward guaranteeing, as much as we are able, that among the participating artists that there is an accurate representation of the Middle East when it comes to faith backgrounds.  This does mean that we have a larger percentage of artists of Muslim background as Islam is the majority faith tradition in the Middle East.  In the I AM exhibition, the participating artists, all of Middle Eastern origin, are both from Muslim and Christian traditions, as they are from Arab and Persian backgrounds.

“Our Last Supper” by Ghada Khunji (Photo-collage on canvas), ©Ghada Khunji

Is there work that CARAVAN would not show? Why?

It is very important to us that artists have creative freedom to fully address the theme/s of the exhibition which naturally means that their work can be viewed as controversial. We have not yet declined a piece of work and would only do so if we felt it was unnecessarily offensive, especially to a specific venue, and did not add to the exhibition or speak to the theme.

From time to time we find that as an artist submits her or his work, he or she is concerned that we might see it as offensive, especially when they know it will be exhibited in cathedrals. And then they are pleasantly surprised to learn that we are not only fine with it but are actually glad that they are pushing the boundaries.

RJE: You use a mix of secular and sacred venues for your exhibition tours. What are you seeking to do through your choice of venues?

A distinguishing feature of CARAVAN art exhibitions is that it is often held in highly trafficked “sacred spaces,” as opposed to just in traditional art spaces – like galleries and museums.

This is largely for two reasons.  First, we want to reach as many people as possible and in as many different ways as possible.  And there are a tremendous number of visitors from all over the world from all segments of society and religious traditions to historic cathedrals and or similar sacred spaces because of their architectural significance.  If we just exhibit in art spaces, then we typically get those interested in art, and even more specifically, that type of art.

Secondly, within “sacred spaces” there is already a contemplative nature to the atmosphere which facilitates the objective of the art exhibition’s message. An exhibition in a sacred space naturally emphasizes the interfaith aspect of the exhibition and provides a starting point for programmes and dialogue around these issues.

We also exhibit in universities performing arts centres and galleries, which of course bring out other characteristics of the exhibition with visitors having a different mindset, and the programme around the exhibition then reflecting the particular needs of their local interests.

RJE: What excites you particularly about the I AM exhibition?

As a review, I AM is an East-West contemporary art exhibition featuring 31 premier Middle Eastern women artists from 12 countries that visually celebrate the rich, diverse and pivotal contributions that Middle Eastern women make to the enduring global quest for peace and harmony.

The key word for me is “celebrate”!  Most exhibitions featuring Middle Eastern women artists focus on negative aspects, that fuel the stereotypes all the more – oppression, exploitation, suffering, and inequality.  However, the I AM exhibition does the opposite. It doesn’t focus on what women are missing and often do not have (for example, equal rights), but rather on what they inherently do have, and how fundamentally essential their contribution is in freeing our world from sectarian strife of any kind.

Designed to address misconceptions of the “other,” I AM aims to challenge existing stereotypes about Middle Eastern women by showing that they are current, contemporary, engaged, active, dynamic and contribute very significantly to the fabric of local and global culture. The exhibition highlights the insights and experiences of Middle Eastern women as they confront issues of culture, religion and social reality in a rapidly changing world, both in the Middle East and West.

In this sense, looking through the lens of Middle Eastern women, this exhibition has the primary objective of helping its viewers see the “other” with fresh eyes, celebrating the diversity of human expression, and also asserting the common priorities that all seek and treasure.

With the world’s attention focused anew on respecting women’s rights, and while there is an increasing need now for developing understanding and encouraging friendship between the peoples of the Middle East and West, we believe this exhibition couldn’t be more timely.

RJE: What differences have you noted through CARAVAN’s work, if any, in regard to the way the Arts are received and understood within different cultures?

This is, of course, a challenging question as it is so easy to see the Middle East or even the West, monolithically.  The diversity in each country in the Middle East, let alone within the religious communities there, in both Islam and Christianity, is tremendous.  When people speak to me about “Arab culture” or about “Islam,” I often find myself asking them, “what Arab culture” or “what Islam” are they referring to?

One constant for me is the element of surprise.  I have found in the Middle East some of the most knowledgeable people about contemporary art I have ever encountered, while in Western Europe we have come upon, at our exhibitions, some of the most uninterested or ill-informed people about the arts.

However, one interesting experience has resulted from our frequent engagement with senior imams at our exhibition openings in the Middle East.  Many of the participating Muslim artists would never think about inviting one of their religious leaders to an opening, let alone having them participate in it.  However, we invite the invited imam to share formal remarks, along with other special VIP guests, and more often than not, the artists are very pleasantly surprised to see the imam actually encouraging creativity and art, and endorsing the art exhibition.  It ends up being a liberating experience for them

Additionally, it is a new experience for the religious leaders in the Middle East, both Muslim and Christian.  Typically, with Islam, art has historically more often than not been more calligraphic or geometric in its focus (with an avoidance of the figurative). Within the ancient Middle Eastern Churches, art is focused on iconography or stained glass. However, most of the Middle Eastern artists participating in our exhibitions are contemporary artists, and so it is a broadening experience for their respective religious leaders.

There is a wonderful little story.  One of the imams that we had come to an exhibition opening in Egypt, brought his 17-year-old daughter with him. He had never been to an art exhibition before.  His daughter is a budding artist and longed to be able to study at the School of Fine Arts.  Her father however always denied her permission to attend, until he experienced the CARAVAN exhibition, which served to not only correct the erroneous stereotypes he had about contemporary art but actually led him to begin to even promote his daughter’s art career…even asking us if we could show her work.

I AM is at St Martin-in-the-Fields London until 20 August 2017 and then will be in Washington, D.C. at the Katzen Arts Center of American University from September 5 – October 22.

Interview With Paul-Gordon Chandler By Rev Jonathan Evens  © Artlyst 2017 Top Photo: “Untitled” – Hijab series (Photographic print) by Boushra Almutawakel, © Boushra Almutawakel

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