Like many Americans after September 11, Sandow Birk, a California-based social practice artist, wanted to learn more about Islam. He read the Qur’an and studied Islamic art, literature, and culture, and he traveled to countries around the world with significant Muslim populations. He became convinced that despite the U.S. having recently engaged in wars with Muslim nations as well as stateless organizations, the text of the Qur’an offers universal principles intended for all nations. Taking that precept as a given, he asked how the Qur’an might be more meaningful to Americans in the second decade of the 21st century. Birk’s most ambitious project to date, American Qur’an does more than introduce Islam’s holy book to non-Muslim audiences. It affirms both the richness of Islamic culture and religion and Islam’s place in an America founded by immigrants whose varied cultures have enriched our society and been united in their respect for America’s constitutional values.
In today’s polarized America, the exhibition offers all of us a timely opportunity to remember why our country was founded and to appreciate and support the diversity that makes it worth preserving. The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters, or suras, which are typically arranged from longest to shortest. Using a copyright-free English translation, Birk created individual gouache paintings of the text rendered in elaborate script based on Los Angeles graffiti tags and scenes from contemporary American life. Birk’s positioning of the text over the images results in a blocking of parts of the contemporary scenes, with the specifics of place, character, and event partially and intentionally obscured. The exhibition features approximately 200 ink and gouache on paper paintings, two large-scale paintings not related directly to the Qur’an, and ceramics.
Adjacent to the exhibition are examples of hand-scribed, religious and secular texts representing world religions and cultures, including a Qur’an.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether or not you go, accompanying the exhibition is a 400-page book, American Qur'an, with essays by Zareena Grewal and Iftikhar Dadi and a preface by Reza Aslan. This lavishly designed volume―containing all 114 suras ― and 427 color illustrations, melds the past with the present, East with the West like nothing before it. The result, hailed by Aslan as "a great favor, not only to Muslims, but also to Americans," is one of the most original art books to appear in decades.