Caravan to the Dark Side of the Moon

 Paul-Gordon Chandler during an interview with a journalist at the opening of The Key, Caravan's 2014 exhibition in London. Image courtesy of Caravan 

Paul-Gordon Chandler during an interview with a journalist at the opening of The Key, Caravan's 2014 exhibition in London. Image courtesy of Caravan 

“The differences between the Muslim and Christian faiths is as slim as the sliver of a crescent moon. The dark side of the moon is what we have in common,” Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler tells me during a trans-Atlantic Skype conversation. “We are so often blinded by the illumination of our differences that we don’t see anything else. The challenge for the future is to find ways to build on the dark side of the moon.”

Joking and Pink Floyd quips aside, Rev Chandler speaks an all-too-often marginalised truth: although all of us are essentially unique, we are all bound by far more than divides us. An author, interfaith advocate, American Episcopal priest and a patron of the arts, Rev Chandler deliberately chose the crescent moon, the symbol of Islam, to make his point because it is the Muslim-Christian relationship that he has focused a lot of his work on. 

He is also the founder of CARAVAN, an arts specific NGO that hosts an annual touring exhibition with the goal of bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs and promoting peace. They sound like lofty and idealistic aims but CARAVAN has garnered international attention and the exhibitions have been hosted at notable venues.

 During the opening of I AM exhibition at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. Artwork visible is an untitled photograph by Boushra Almutawakel and Maitha Demithan's Mother (scanography). Image credit: Marc Gascoigne

During the opening of I AM exhibition at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. Artwork visible is an untitled photograph by Boushra Almutawakel and Maitha Demithan's Mother (scanography). Image credit: Marc Gascoigne

The most recent iteration I AM, which features the work of 31 women from around the Middle East opened in National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, then moved to London’s Trafalgar Square at St-Martin-in-the-Fields and is currently up at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington DC. (Read my review here) The programming for the London event included a lecture by Elif Shafak, a renowned Turkish author and in Jordan, it was held under the patronage of Queen Rania Al Abdullah. The soft power of arts and culture should not be underestimated.

Rev Chandler has been working at building bridges between East and West since the events of 9/11 tore a chasm through societal bonds. At the time, he was working for an international NGO in Washington state but in 2003, when a position opened up as the rector of St. Johns Church in Maadi, southern Cairo, he moved to Egypt and began continuing interfaith dialogue. However, by his own admission, the kinds of lectures, forums and seminars he was hosting as part of the average inter-religious gatherings were “tremendously boring”. So, he turned to the arts.

“I have always been passionate about the arts,” he says, telling stories of a childhood in Senegal with an artistic father and a richly varied appreciation for all sorts of music, film and poetry. So, when things weren’t working through normal diplomatic channels, it felt natural to him try an artistic approach.

Within the church buildings, he set up artist residency opportunities and got local artists involved in producing stained glass for the windows. He hosted film screenings and music concerts and received overwhelming support from the community. The late Omar Sharif spoke at a film screening at the church and Mohamed Abla and Dr. Reda Abdel Rahman, two leading Egyptian artists helped to curate the first informal exhibitions held in the same space.

In 2009, the first event under the CARAVAN name was held in the church. Featuring well-known local artists such as Hisham El-Zeiny and Hany Rashed, the event also featured a symposium where artists and viewers could interact.

 Anglican Bishop Mouneer Anis showing Coptic Bishop Botros the opening of the Caravan exhibition in 2011 in Cairo. Image courtesy of CARAVAN

Anglican Bishop Mouneer Anis showing Coptic Bishop Botros the opening of the Caravan exhibition in 2011 in Cairo. Image courtesy of CARAVAN

The event grew over subsequent years and in 2011, with the Tahrir Square protests and revolution, the event was titled My Neighbour, in an effort to highlight the “unprecedented unity the community, working side by side to re-shape their country.”

After a decade of cultural diplomacy, in 2013, Rev Chandler relocated to Chicago and CARAVAN took on a new, international focus. The annual exhibition for that year consisted of 50 fibreglass donkeys designed by leading Egyptian artists including Khaled Hafez and Ayman Lotfy as well as a handful of Western artists. It began in Cairo but later in the year, a selected number of donkeys were displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and was supported by the British Council. Afterwards, the artworks were auctioned off with all profits going to charities in Egypt.

Since then, CARAVAN has used art as a catalyst to stimulate debate and redress stereotypes. The 2017 exhibition, curated by Janet Rady, is an attempt to humanise the Middle Eastern woman, who is so often squashed into an uncomfortably small box. Including various mediums from photography to sculpture, the thorny issue of gender is addressed from many angles.

 Hilda Hiary. Pregnant Women. Shown here installed in the  I AM  exhibition in the American University Museum, Washington DC. Image credit and copyright: Bruce Guthrie

Hilda Hiary. Pregnant Women. Shown here installed in the I AM exhibition in the American University Museum, Washington DC. Image credit and copyright: Bruce Guthrie

Alia Ali, a young artist with Yemeni-Bosnian artist, shrouds herself in newspapers before taking a self-portrait – referencing the media’s impenetrable barrier – and Hilda Hiary, a Jordanian painter portrays a pregnant woman rising like a warrior from battle, quoting a Nizar Qabbani poem in her statement.

With every iteration of CARAVAN's exhibitions, the underlying message is the same but in my opinion, it cannot be overemphasised. CARAVAN works for the promotion of tolerance and acceptance of diversity and Rev Chandler is convinced, as am I, that art is the strongest weapon with which to do that.

“Unlike many other things art strikes at a deep subconscious level that in turn, can create new pathways of understanding and therefore transcend differences. In many ways it causes us to reimagine ourselves and to rewrite our internal narratives. Art initiatives are encounter points that bring people together to gain insights and also alleviate fear and challenge misconceptions,” he concludes. The pen, paintbrush and palette, are indeed mightier than the sword.

  • I AM. September 5 - October 22, 2017. American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Washington DC.
  • For more information about all CARAVAN's projects and exhibitions: www.oncaravan.org