Artist creates a Quran using traditional methods but a New World point of view
By Kurt Shaw, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Unlike the Gospels of the New Testament, which relate accounts of Jesus’ time spent on Earth, the Holy Quran is believed to be the word of God verbatim, as communicated through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad in the 7th century.
Collected together and grouped generally according to length (rather than chronologically), the 114 chapters, or suras, of the Quran form a collection of sermon-like “revelations,” which are the fundamental text of Islam.
More than half of those suras are on display, in illustrated form, at The Andy Warhol Museum in the exhibit, “The Word of God: Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an.”
The suras were translated in English, then hand-written and illustrated by Birk, a Los Angeles-based artist.
Birk, 48, has spent the past five years creating a personal Quran. Following the traditions of ancient Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, the artist has been hand-transcribing the entire English-translated text of the Quran 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. But he’s added a twist, using a hand-lettered “font” based on graffiti tagging and surrounding the text with illustrated scenes from contemporary American life.
For example, in “American Qur’an Sura 19 (a),” a mother and her two daughters are depicted leaving a convenience store, on the side of which is a Latin-inspired Mural of the Virgin Mary. In “American Qur’an Sura 67,” Birk portrays a parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, covered in debris in the wake of a tornado. And in “American Qur’an Sura 49,” a couple can be seen digging their automobiles out from under a deep fallen snow after a blizzard. These, like all of the works, are delicately and profusely illustrated in ink and gouache on 16-inch by 24-inch sheets of cream-colored paper.
Birk’s goal is to illustrate the entire 114 suras of the Quran in this way. To date. he has completed about 120 pages of what he expects will be a 210-page project.
“I have been working on the project for about five years already,” Birk says. “I am about halfway through the project, and I expect it to be finished in early 2013. So, in total, it will be about seven years.”
Even with just the work completed to date, it’s an amazing accomplishment. Especially considering that Birk has been, and is currently, working on many other projects, including illustrating an updated version of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” creating large-scale wood-block prints inspired by Jacques Callot’s “The Miseries of War” from the 17th century, and creating “Liberal” and “Conservative” versions of “Maps of the World.”
Birk says many different notions brought him to the idea of undertaking this project. Over the course of about a dozen years, the artist had found himself traveling to many Muslim regions of the world and becoming very interested in the places he was visiting.
“I was fascinated by the various cultures of the different countries, and I wanted to learn more about them,” he says. “I had been visiting museums and had seen mosques and heard the call to prayer in different places all over the planet.”
It was in Casablanca that Birk first bought a copy of the Quran. “Later, I bought other copies in English and started to read it,” he says.
Being American, and not of Islamic faith, Birk says he decided to read it to gain more of an understanding of the Muslim perspective. He says he thought it was “important for me to learn for myself about Islam, rather than listen to what other people were saying.”
While a student at Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design (now Otis College of Art and Design) in Los Angeles, Birk had studied Persian miniature painting and the Western traditions of illuminated manuscripts. But it was when visiting the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin where they have one of the biggest collections of ancient Qurans in the world, that he was able to study many of them very closely.
“I ended up going back to Ireland three times to visit the library, as well as other places where I could see and study ancient manuscripts,” he says. “I, eventually, thought that it would be an interesting thing, as an artist, to attempt to make one entire book, alone, using the traditions and techniques of ancient book illumination.”
“All of these thoughts and experiences led me to the thought of making an English version manuscript of the Quran,” he says.
The exhibit also includes a ceramic tiled mihrab. A mihrab is a traditional object or architectural feature in Islam found in mosques and often in people’s homes. It is generally a wall niche decorated in tiles, or a hanging ceramic wall piece in homes, although it can be other things. Its function is to indicate the direction of Mecca for prayers.
“The project has been exhibited in four venues so far,” Birk says. “In each instance, I thought it important to include a mihrab in the show.”
After pondering what sort of wall niche Americans are familiar with in everyday life, it occurred to Birk that an ATM machine is something we find in walls here in this country, and which we often stand in front of. So, he employed the help of his wife, Elyse Pignolet, who also is an artist, to help fabricate the piece, because she often works in ceramics.
The Warhol has generously provided prayer rugs in the exhibit for those so inclined to pray in front of the ceramic ATM/mihrab, which is positioned in the proper direction, toward Mecca.
Although the mihrab may seem a bit controversial, given its obvious shape and form of an ATM machine, Birk says there has been little complaint. “Almost none and never from people who have actually seen the project,” Birk says.
“There were a handful of angry e-mails to the galleries when the first exhibitions opened in California and when it was written about in the New York Times,” Birk says of the exhibit in general. “The interesting thing was that the majority of the angry e-mails came from right-wing Christians who thought that Americans should not be reading the Quran and that the show should be closed down and that it was drawing attention to the Quran, which should not be happening in the United States.”
Nevertheless, the exhibit offers an opportunity to not only read some of the Quran in English, but witness the immense talent of one of America’s most prolific artists.