Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an

The Californian artist Sandow Birk has just unveiled a new, monumental project titled American Qur’an, a series of paintings of an English-language Qur’an that has been adorned with scenes from American life. He has been working on this project since 2004, and has managed to finish approximately 60 of the 114 chapters. Some of the paintings are on display at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco and others at the Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles.

I went to see the show when it opened this past weekend. Each of Birk’s paintings is made up of a Qur’anic chapter hand-written in ink, in a style of writing reminiscent of graffiti art. According to the New York Times, the text comes from a copyright-free 1861 English translation by J. M. Rodwell. Beneath the hand-written chapters are pictures in gouache. A few of the illustrations seem to me to be literal or expected (e.g. the chapter titled “The Constellations” comes with a picture of a constellation), but the vast majority are novel or unusual in some way (e.g. the first chapter, the Fatiha, appears with a maze of L.A. freeways.) Most of the pictures are narrative scenes: farmers working in a field; people standing in front of a display of dinosaur bones; workers picking up trash; and so on.

When Jori Finkel of the New York Times asked Usman Madha of the King Fahd Mosque what he thought of the project, he cautioned that some people might find the work offensive. The potential for offense is always there, as with any piece of art. But my take on it is that, although the project is titled American Qur’an, it is a highly idiosyncratic series.

It is not what one might call traditionally “American.” The painted scenes do not take place exclusively in the United States; there are representations of outer space and of a South American pyramid. And those narrative scenes that are from the United States include many different races, ethnicities, and languages. Neither could the project be referred to as a proper “Qur’an”. It is not a book, it is a series of paintings. The text is not in Arabic; it’s in English. And it doesn’t even appear to be entirely faithful to one English version. For instance, I noticed that in Rodwell’s translation, Chapter 86 is titled “The Morning Star” and begins with “By the heaven, and by the Night-Comer! / But who shall teach thee what the night-comer is?” whereas in Sandow Birk’s version, Chapter 86 uses the Arabic title of “At Taariq” and begins with the “By the heaven and that which comes in the night/But who shall teach you what it is that comes in the night.” Chapter 36 uses the proper name “Yasin” as its title and so do several English translations, but Birk uses the title “Human Being.” Birk also includes a couple of misspellings. In Chapter 53 (“The Star”) the word revelation is spelled revalation. All in all, this struck me as a highly personal project, in which an artist tries to make sense of the Qur’an on a highly personal level.

Photo credit: Sandow Birk/Koplin del Rio Gallery

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