For the past nine years,
transcribing the Qur’an. Titled American Qur’an
(2004-2014), his unique
213-page work is a recreation of the holy Muslim text, geared toward a
contemporary American audience. Illuminated with intricate scenes of everyday
American life, and realized in a carefully crafted script that mines
inspiration from L.A. graffiti culture, the work is not a reflection of
American culture, but rather, a gift to it.
Following 9/11 and the war in Iraq,
Birk began to delve into Islam’s traditions, particularly its texts. Though he
identifies as a non-religious person, Birk has explored religion in artistic
endeavors before; a past project investigated Catholicism and Dante’s Inferno.
From the Qur’an, he became interested in illuminations and Medieval
manuscripts, and following a chance encounter with historic Qur’an texts during
a surfing trip in Dublin in 2004, the idea for American Qur’an began to
solidify. Working with a free-use Qur’an text from the 1800s, and gleaning
further understanding through contemporary translations and interpretations,
Birk embarked on his project, and put the finishing touches on it earlier this
year. This fall the latest installment is on view at Los Angeles gallery Koplin
del Rio, and in 2015, the full text will be published in book form—which was
Birk’s initial hope—and will become a major traveling exhibition, beginning at
the Orange County Museum of Art next summer. On the occasion of the Koplin del
Rio show, Artsy spoke to Birk to learn about the project and its significance
as a means of making the Qur’an more accessible for an American audience.
Artsy: Can you talk us through the
process that went into the realization of American Qur’an? What was your
day-to-day like over the nine years of creation?
Sandow Birk: Although it was a lot
of physical work, the project was also a very contemplative one—I guess much
like a monk making an illuminated manuscript. I would work on the project sura
by sura (sura or surah means chapter). I would begin by
reading the sura, then read commentary about it—mostly by Muhammad Asad
and other scholars—then begin the transcribing of the text, which took a couple
of days per page. While transcribing, I would often listen to the Qur’an
recited (via Youtube, for example) or pause and look up passages to learn more
about them. During the course of the transcribing, a series of possible images
would come to mind and by the end I’d have an idea of an image to go along with
the text. Then the drawing and [gouache] painting of the images would take
several more days, along with the finalizing of the border decorations and
palmettes (the decorative verse markings)—all of which were drawn from
Artsy: What was the greatest
challenge you encountered in realizing this project?
SB: First, the complexity of the
text. The Qur’an isn’t a narrative like the Bible. I often describe it as more
like a collection of sermons, in which stories we might know from the Bible are
mentioned in passing, along with other stories and events happening in
Muhammad’s lifetime. So that to grasp the metaphors, the reading is like
opening an onion—each reading leads to another topic to investigate, which in
turn helps explain a metaphor being used, which then relates to one’s life and
relationship to the afterlife. So the sheer amount of investigation and
learning and thinking that had to be done was exhausting—like going to college
The whole nine-year project became a
real test of my own endurance and focus. It was a test of myself and my own
commitment and work ethic.
Artsy: Can you tell us about some of
the scenes from American life that you have chosen to illustrate in the
illuminations, and the inspiration behind them?
SB: Well, there are 213 pages in my
layout of the Qur’an, with each page illuminated with scenes of life in the
United States (or, occasionally, of American soldiers abroad). Each of the
images is related to the text in some way and for some reason. The simplest
relationship would be examples where the text discusses Noah and the Ark, and
the images I’ve used are images of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or other
floods across the country. Other images range from the mundane, such as people
working in cubicles in an office or going to a supermarket, to scenes of police
arresting people in the streets, prisons, a death chamber, tornados and other
natural disasters, and Guantanamo Bay. What there is not are scenes
depicting Muhammad or events in his time.
Artsy: What do you hope for viewers
to glean from experiencing your works? What message would you like them to
SB: The project is aimed at
Americans who are unfamiliar with the Qur’an and who can see themselves and
their lives in the images. The idea was to take a text which might be thought
of as foreign and unfathomable, and to put it into a context that makes it
easier to relate to. If one takes the Qur’an as a message from God to all
humanity, then the question is how that message might relate to our daily lives
living in the U.S. today. It is not an “Americanized” Qur’an—it’s meant as a
version of the Qur’an for Americans as an audience.
The Qur’an has an ancient and
complex message, but it is not unfamiliar. The most surprising thing to anyone
who has never read it is that it is amazingly familiar. It’s the story of Adam
and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Moses, Jesus and Mary, Abraham and Isaac, and on and on.
It’s the same message that we’ve heard all of our lives, and it’s worth being
at least slightly familiar with, especially in this day and age.