It wasn’t part of the plan for the exhibition ‘Caravan: In Peace and with Compassion’ to coincide with mass unrest in Egypt. With the sectarian desecration of at least 30 Christian schools and churches. With a death toll surpassing even that of the 2011 revolution.
But when 25 life-size fibreglass donkeys, painted by Western and Egyptian artists in a show of interfaith solidarity, are unveiled at St Paul’s this Friday, organisers hope their message will have added resonance. ‘It seems right at such a volatile time to show solidarity with the people of Egypt, both Muslim and Christian,’ said Reverend Mark Oakley, canon chancellor at St Paul’s.
Three months ago the donkeys lived in rather less hallowed digs: hotel lobbies and schools across Cairo. The exhibition was inspired by CowParade, the early-noughties public-art mega-event that saw herds of painted cows pass through cities including New York and London – and hordes of people turn out to see them. Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler, the Cairo-based Episcopalian priest who launched and curated this event, says donkeys were the obvious choice for his city.
‘Donkeys have great symbolism in both Cairo’s faiths (Islam and Christianity), which see them as representing peace and humility. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey before his death. And the second caliph entered the city on a donkey.’
Only a portion of the original herd has made it to London – 65 were sold at auction – but Chandler insists we’re getting the finest specimens. Some of Egypt’s foremost artists are represented. Fifteen of the donkeys will be available to buy at St Paul’s; the rest at auction after the show. Proceeds will be split between the artists and Egyptian charities.
‘Reda Abdel Rahman’s (first image above) is going to get the most attention. He’s painted one half of the donkey as the Muslim Brotherhood and the other half as the army. And the donkey’s face is a portrait of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi,’ says Chandler. Since the army deposed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are no longer two halves of the same beast. But the piece won widespread acclaim at a time when Morsi was threatening to lock up opponents. And, sadly, it’s even more relevant now.
The exhibition is included with Cathedral admission and can be seen for free by those attending services.