Arts & Entertainment: ‘American Qur’an’ illuminates Kittredge

In the minds of many Americans, the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) is a thing exotic, mysterious and possibly sinister. It is thought to be the guidebook of bombers and beheaders and extremists against whom U.S. armed forces are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A prolonged period of war, terrorist threats and hyper surveillance has spawned a paranoid environment in which Muslims are regarded with suspicion. Such an environment is conducive to the spread of dehumanization and the tagging of “otherness” onto the people of the Islamic world.

Enter Sandow Birk, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work deals with political matters and cultural critique. In a brilliant move to counter this downgrading of Muslims and Islamic culture, Birk has undertaken the herculean task of manually inscribing and illuminating the entire Qur’an. Birk calls the project “The American Qur’an.” Excerpts of the project are currently on view at University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Gallery.

Birk’s endeavor is to show the Qur’an as what it was meant to be: a universal message to all humankind. Each chapter, or Sura, is carefully written out in English (Birk uses copyright-free English translations). Birk developed a calligraphic script based in the graffiti-style of lettering prevalent in the American Urban environment. Surrounding the Qur’anic text are scenes of American life. The scene depicted has some connection to the content of the particular chapter at hand. A page that mentions Noah’s ark, for example, is decorated with a scene of a man building a rowboat. The boat-in-progress is held together with pinch clamps with bright red handles. The garage door is open showing cupboards and tool chests. A red tricycle sits on the lawn nearby.

The imagery is diverse. There are scenes of ethnic neighborhoods, of preschool playgrounds, of snowy residential streets and of surfers at the beach. There are also scenes of firefighters responding to disasters and an eerie image of the execution room of a prison. These are all hand painted with gouache and acrylic.

The actual text of the Qur’an is floated atop the imagery like independent sheets that seem to eclipse the painted imagery. Figures are cut off and much is inferred without being shown. Birk has been working on the project for several years now and the task is still not complete.

Birk is drawing upon a long tradition of inscribing and illuminating the Qur’an. He travelled widely in the Islamic world in preparation for the project. Birk is also an artist with some very impressive awards and fellowships in his resume. This month he is serving a residency at UPS, lecturing and teaching workshops.

“American Qur’an” runs through April 12. For further information visit http://www.pugetsound.edu/news-and-events/campus-news/details/1285/. More of Birks work can be viewed at www.sandowbirk.com.

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