Collaborative ceramic works with Elyse Pignolet
In Sandow Birk’s continuation of American Qur’an—his ongoing project to hand-transcribe and illuminate the Qur'an with scenes from contemporary American life—the artist presents his newest works on paper. This is his fourth installment of the series, which has garnered significant critical attention in The New York Times, The LA Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, among other publications. Birk embarked on the work for America Qur’an in 2004, and to complete the remaining work, or all 114 suras, it will take two more years.
Birk’s objective for American Qur’an is to create a version of the Islamic manuscript in contemporary English with contemporary American scenes. After spending several years studying the complexities and politics of Christianity in his version of Dante’s Divine Comedy (2001-2004), Birk took notice of the growing American preoccupation with, and often vilification of, Islam. Questioning how Americans could consider the Judeo-Christian religious texts—which originate from the same region of the world—in such opposition to Islam, Birk thought that if the content of the Qur’an were presented as an American story with relevance to American life and society it could become more accessible to non-Muslim Americans and possibly foster reflection about the Qur’an’s relationship to Judeo-Christian texts, beliefs and Western society.
To accomplish this, Birk based his version of the Qur’an on traditional manuscripts—chapter headings are decorated and the pages are illuminated with miniature paintings in full color, using inks, gouache, and metallic paints—and the style of some of his imagery is based on traditional Persian miniature painting and the traditional painting styles of Indonesia, India, and the Middle East. He approaches each chapter, or sura, by working from three sanctioned English translations of the Qur’an, then transcribes the text from these versions in black ink in a contemporary graffiti-like calligraphy that overlays a narrative scene that relates to the text in the sura he is illustrating. Unlike conventional Qur’ans, the illuminated “pages” depict contemporary life in America: Americans working, socializing, celebrating, fighting, and engaging in daily activities, and scenes that are iconic in recent American history: the Katrina flood, Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, illegal Mexican border crossings. The resulting works on paper that combine image and text, each measuring 16 x 24 inches, illustrate the 114 suras of the Qur’an. The project, when completed, will number approximately 300 works on paper that collectively constitute the entire text of the Qur’an.
Raised on the beaches of Orange County and currently living in Southern California, Sandow Birk is a product of West Coast culture. Well-traveled and a graduate of the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles, Birk has incorporated references to Southern California and his travels to locations around the nation and abroad in many of his projects. With an emphasis on social issues, frequent subjects of his past work have included barrio life, inner-city violence, graffiti, prisons (PRISONATION Series), surfing, skateboarding, Dante’s Divine Comedy, 9/11 (The 99 Names of God, in collaboration with Elyse Pignolet) and the War in Iraq (The Depravities of War). Often merging fact and fiction and drawing upon art historical and literary precedents for many of his compositions and content, Birk creates salient and humorous works that invite a closer reading of a particular issue. He frequently pursues a subject in depth, and through a multi-disciplinary approach—painting, drawing, printmaking, film and video, and sculpture— supports his ideas. In the past several years Birk’s work has been presented in more than two dozen museum and gallery exhibitions and his work is in as many public and museum collections and was most recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA). Birk has received an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Getty Fellowship, and a City of Los Angeles Fellowship. Two of Birk’s major projects, In Smog and Thunder and Incarcerated: Vision of California in the 21st Century, were published as monographs by Last Gasp, and Birk’s version of Dante’s Inferno (which is about to be re-released) was published by Chronicle Books in 2004, and subsequently Chronicle Books published Dante’s Purgatorio and Dante’s Paradiso in 2005. More recently, The Depravities of War was published as a monograph by HuiPress, Makawao, Hawaii and Grand CentralPress, Grand Central Art Center, California State University, Fullerton. In the past few years, Birk has often collaborated with his wife, Elyse Pignolet, who is also an artist. The works made to date in the American Qur’an Series are currently on exhibit at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburg. Birk has exhibited with Catharine Clark Gallery since 1994.