The Holy Family’s flight through Egypt at the start of the first century AD has continually inspired artists and events, including the annual Journey of the Holy Family to Egypt – founded and curatwed by artist Chadi Adib Salama – which in its fifth round this year was held virtually due to Covid-19. This year 64 artists from 17 countries including India, the Philippines, Armenia, Romania and Denmark are taking part.
“The exhibition calls for exploring new aspects of the journey, and for collective understanding of human values such as peace, patience and faith,” Salama said. This need not happen in a religious framework. “It is rather a call for drawing inspiration from a highly symbolic event, popular in both Islamic and Christian religions and cultures.”
Launched in 2006 to commemorate the artist’s father Adib Salama, a prominent ecclesiastical historian and founder of the Islamic-Christian dialogue platform, who passed away in 2004, the project is based on Adib Salama’s book The Journey of the Holy Family to Egypt, published by Dar Althakafa, which was also made into a movie, Jesus in Egypt, by the celebrated director Khairi Beshara.
The first event was held at El Sawy Culture Wheel and was limited to an ecumenical Christian congregation and a Muslim-Christian dialogue seminar. The first exhibition took place in 2009 at the Saad Zagloul Cultural Centre – itself a space symbolic of national unity – and featured prominent artists Helmy El Touny and Makram Henein.
In the 2012 exhibition, which took place at the same venue, music, dance and seminars were added to the schedule. The exhibition was much bigger and included not only paintings and installations but also ceramic works by prominent ceramist Khaled Sirag. Due to budgetary constraints, he event was suspended until 2019 when it was relaunched at the Nout Gallery in Zamalek.
Some artists, Salama says, adopted the traditional approach. Others did their own research prior to embarking on the project. This year, the announcement was just three weeks before the online opening. This made the work more spontaneous and experimental.
The online exhibition demonstrates remarkable diversity in viewpoints and techniques. Paintings, photography, digital photography and computer graphic arts are all represented. Artist Dava Lock from the Philippines contribures an acrylic on paper portrait of Herod. Sami Creta from Alexandria imagines Jesus and the Virgin travelling in a jam-packed public bus instead of on donkey back.
Rich Dethlefsen from Denmark shows the Virgin and Joseph pushing a stroller, while Nilton Vela from Peru contributes a self portrait entitled Poet in Quarantine. Joanna Paljocha from Poland illustrates a modern family, Rodica Strugaru from Romania focuses on the journey’s hardship in Hard Times, and Hagob Sulahian from Armenia produced an abstract painting inspired by “living the faith in all its colors”.
Over 42,000 visitors have seen the exhibition – incomparably more than any gallery viewership.
An expert in Coptic culture and art with a PhD in the connection between Coptic art and Oriental aesthetics, Chadi Salama, a lecturer at the Faculty of Art Education in Zamalek, never thought of another theme.
“This is already a broad theme, a human theme, an open theme that allows for realistic, symbolic and expressionist representations. The Holy Family spent three years in Egypt, passing through many points across the country, so there are endless details an artist can deal with. I am looking forward to continuing the event on a yearly basis.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly