As the iconic Maltese donkey moves into the Ċittadella Cultural Centre, Iggy Fenech interviews Paul-Gordon Chandler about the meaning behind the Mediterranean Peace Donkey Project.

The Maltese islands, located at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, have long acted as a bridge between continents – that’s a fact that any person who has been part of the Maltese educational system can recite like a nursery rhyme.

That has given our islands a unique position in trade, war and the dissemination of culture throughout the ages. But what does this mean in the politically charged times we live in? And what role does Malta’s – and, more specifically, Gozo’s – geographical position play today?

“In the middle of the increasing chasm of discord and misunderstanding that exists between the cultures and creeds of the Middle East and the West, our day calls for a new kind of movement... one that builds on what they hold in common and that wages peace on the ‘other’,” says Paul-Gordon Chandler, the founder and president of international, peacebuilding arts NGO Caravan.

“The growing tensions between the Middle East and the West highlight that much work lies ahead toward finding ways that both can live peacefully together. Therefore, it is critical that ‘creative demonstrations of dialogue’ are established. Indeed, it could not be timelier for a peace-building, highly visible public art project such as The Mediterranean Peace Donkey Project that focuses on the fundamental message of intercultural harmony,” the reverend says.

Now on at the Ċittadella Cultural Centre in Gozo, the Mediterranean Peace Donkey exhibition is made up of 21 life-sized fiberglass donkeys – modelled after the endangered and iconic Maltese donkey. Painted by some of the best Gozitan, Maltese, Egyptian and western artists, each donkey symbolises something unique, but is also part of the whole.

The project explores human heritage, faith and culture by giving artists the opportunity of a blank canvas, onto which they can project their identity

“The donkey is an interfaith symbol as it represents both peace and compassion,” says the reverend. “Examples of this are numerous, such as the fact that both Jesus and the second Muslim caliph, Omar Ibn El Kattab, rode on donkeys when they entered Jerusalem.

“More than that, however, the Maltese donkey has specific, historic symbolism for East-West relations. Four of these Maltese donkeys were sent by the Marquis de Lafayette of France to George Washington in 1786 (who was soon to become the first US President) as a gift from the Mediterranean to the West, for example. Hence, the Maltese donkey is, in many ways, a historic East-West symbol.”

The donkey is also seen as the ultimate beast of burden and has become a humanitarian symbol that creates awareness for the difficult conditions for working donkeys and their masters in the Middle Eastern region. And, even more importantly, the donkey is seen as a means of journeying, tying in as a symbol for the thousands of migrants and refugees passing through the Mediterranean region in search of a new life away from conflict and war.

“The exhibition in Gozo follows their display over a two-month period in Mdina during the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale,” says Rev. Paul-Gordon. “But, all of this follows in the footsteps of both the widely successful 2013 Caravan public art Egyptian donkey initiative in Cairo, Egypt and in London at St Paul’s Cathedral, which was seen by over 120,000 people.

“This, however, is part of international approach to public art that features painted animals,” he says. “This first happened in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1998, when painted fiberglass cows appeared around the city. Chicago followed suit in 1999 and other cities around the world have since done something similar with painted fiberglass animals, including elephants in London and bears in Paris.

The growing tensions between the Middle East and the West highlight that much work lies ahead toward finding ways that both can live peacefully together

“Nevertheless, we sought to add meaning and purpose to the specific animal symbol, hence we used the donkey as it represents peace and compassion in both the Middle East and in the West, as well as in Christianity and Islam.”

In its essence, the Maltese Peace Donkey exhibition does more than simply unite East and West. It explores human heritage, faith and culture by giving artists the opportunity of a blank canvas onto which they can project their identity. What makes it so uniquely effective, however, are not the differences but the similarities between the artists’ interpretation.

The reverend reminds us how the early 20th-century Lebanese artist and writer Kahlil Gibran, who profoundly bridged East and West, beautifully said: “Your neighbour is your other self dwelling behind a wall. In understanding, all walls shall fall down. In fact, this project seeks to play a considered role in the overall goal of seeing an end to sectarian strife and of a global society that inherently respects and honours diversity, living and working together in harmony.

“The project is an expression by a group of noted visual artists from different cultural and religious backgrounds communicating a message about the importance of not just tolerance between the peoples of the Middle East and West, but of the importance of living in peace and with compassion towards the other,” he concludes.

The exhibition runs until February 29 at Ta' Pinu, Gozo.

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