Over the past decade, Sandow Birk has traveled extensively through the Islamic world, visiting several of the most populous Muslim nations as well as important collections of Islamic artworks. It was these travels, along with political events across the world, that inspired his initial interest in Islam and the Qur’an. Since beginning the project his travels have included repeated research visits to a variety of places, from the largest mosque in Africa to the remote Islamic outposts of Mindanao in the Philippines and the Andaman Islands of India. Among several other places, extensive research has been done throughout Morocco; at the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris while on a three-month residency at the Cité International des Artes; and at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, home to one of the largest and finest collections of hand-illuminated Qur’ans in the world. Further research was done at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon.
Unlike the Gospels of the New Testament – which relate narratives of Jesus’ ministry on earth – the Holy Qur’an is believed to be the verbatim words of God as communicated through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad in the 7th Century CE. Collected together and grouped generally according to length (rather than chronologically), the 114 chapters (“suras”) form a collection of sermon-like “revelations” that are the fundamental text of Islam, the fastest growing religion in America. At a time when the United States is involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declares itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind. If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples, he ponders, what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century? How does the message of the Qur’an relate to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time? What is this message that we have spent so much blood and treasure fighting against? And how can the message of the Qur’an be applied to contemporary American life? In short, what might the Qur’an mean to contemporary America?
From that starting point, Sandow Birk has spent the past four years creating a personal Qur’an. Following the traditions of ancient Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, the artist has been hand-transcribing the entire English-translated text of the Qur’an as was done in centuries past – following traditional guidelines as to the colors of inks, the formatting of the pages, the size of margins and the illuminations of page headings and medallions marking verses and passages. His hand-lettered calligraphy uses an American tradition of writing - that of the street letters of urban graffiti that he finds around his Los Angeles neighborhood. Once each chapter is transcribed, he then seeks to illuminate the text and its message with scenes from contemporary American life – investigating how the message relates to our lives in the United States today. Adapting the techniques and stylistic devices of Arabic and Persian painting and albums, his works blend the past with the present, the East with the West, creating an “American Qur’an”. --text courtesy of Koplin del Rio Gallery
(Images: Sandow Birk: American Qur'an: Sura 92 and 93, 2009, ink, acrylic and gouache on paper, 16" x 24"; American Qur'an: Sura 53b, 2009, ink, acrylic and gouache on paper, 16" x 24"; American Qur'an: Sura 54a, diptych, 2009, ink, acrylic and gouache on paper; All images courtesy of the artist and Koplin del Rio Gallery, Los Angeles)
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