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Beauty of Holiness

By Peggy Eastman

At a time of heightened strife, violence, and killings in the Middle East, Washington National Cathedral is showcasing the U.S. premiere of an international, interfaith exhibition of 48 life-size figures in prayer.

Some praying figures are standing, some are kneeling, and some are sitting; each was decorated by a different artist (of Muslim, Christian, or Jewish background) using one of the undecorated fiberglass sculptures in a pose of prayer created by Egyptian artist Reda Abdel Rahman.

The exhibition, called AMEN: A Prayer for the World, will continue in Washington through October 6, and then will move to New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Oct. 12-Nov. 23). It is a pioneering initiative of CARAVAN, an interfaith nonprofit organization that seeks to use art as a bridge to heal divisions between peoples of different faiths and cultures. The Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, recently named president and CEO of CARAVAN, is an Episcopal priest who served as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cairo from 2003 to 2013. Chandler and Rahman curated the exhibition.

In his introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, Chandler says, “It could not be timelier for this artistic intercultural and inter-religious initiative of peace-building, promoting a sectarian-free world.” According to Chandler, the model for the sculptural prayer form is Amun, the god of ancient Thebes in about the 21st century B.C., who is credited with moving religion toward monotheism. In the exhibit, the figure of Amun is purposely associated with the word Amen, which is commonly used to conclude Christian, Muslim, and Jewish prayers or blessings.

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, said the CARAVAN exhibition continues the cathedral’s tradition of interfaith ministry, and “allows us to continue exploring the cathedral’s nave as a space for artistic exhibition and expression.” In addition, he said, it “has brought us into a partnership with both CARAVAN and the Embassy of Egypt.”

To walk through the interfaith exhibit at the cathedral is to be struck by the power, breadth, and variety of prayer themes the participating artists chose in decorating their life-size fiberglass sculptures, which seem almost alive. Each figure is an original; each is arresting; all are different. Some have wings, some are colorful, one is silver, one is coal black, and one is lit from within. Some pay homage to iconography, one evokes the ancient Egyptian wrappings used for mummies, and one celebrates the color blue (costly lapis lazuli), which is used by all faiths to represent divinity, protection, and devotion.

Egyptian artist Karim Abd El Malak created a kneeling figure with hands on the knees whose torso is slashed and separated, so there is an empty space in the middle of the body. The figure is a visual representation of continuing to pray in spite of shattering violence. In his statement on the work, the artist wrote: “Does death wait to check the religion on an ID card? Let me pray as I like. … I see you as flesh and blood just like me.”

American artist Arthur Goldberg, who has worked internationally as a graphic and environmental designer for more than 40 years, painted a kneeling fiberglass sculpture a bright shiny red, and bisected it with a reflective polished steel plank that acts as a mirror, and is lit on its edges.

“This image reflects the division that can be caused between various religions as well as the light of hope it brings to our commonality,” Goldberg said. “Over thousands of years, religion has caused death and destruction as people have used it as a weapon. But religion has also given hope to the oppressed, fortitude in the face of circumstances.”

Some of the artists chose to explore whether religion and technology can create together in the contemporary world, as did Lilianne Milgrom, who was born in Paris, spent her formative years in Australia, moved to Israel, and now lives in the United States. Her seated white praying angel with feathery wings is emblazoned with a blue QR code on its chest.

“After scanning the code with our ubiquitous personal mobile devices, we can send a prayer for the world with the click of a finger,” Milgrom said. “It is fitting that these prayers are then sent to the digital cloud for safe keeping. Amen.”

Egyptian artist Marwa Adel decorated a standing, praying figure with flowers and a see-through womb in which a curled unborn baby can clearly be seen. Adel described her female figure as a messenger of hope, peace, and love:   “When you are pregnant, you carry a pure, innocent, and peaceful creature that embodies the truest understanding of these traits. Let love and peace be his/her faith and religion. If every mother kept her kids as pure as when they were born, we will live in heaven.”

According to Chandler, the CARAVAN interfaith arts exhibition draws multitudes of visitors each year. In 2013, thousands of Egyptians and Westerners viewed CARAVAN’s public art exhibition of painted donkeys (symbolizing peace and compassion), by artists from the Middle East and West.

That exhibition started in Cairo and then drew an estimated 120,000 visitors to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. After the London showing, a Sotheby’s auctioneer led a charity auction of the artwork to raise funds for Egyptian charities that serve the poor and needy regardless of their beliefs.

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