After the September 11 attacks, artist Sandow Birk was compelled to explore and understand Islam: What it is to be Muslim? And what does its sacred text, the Qur’an, represent? Then, Birk embarked on an ambitious and controversial 9-year project to create an illuminated version of the book. Now, Koplin Del Rio gallery proudly presents Sandow Birk: American Qur’an. On view September 13 – October 17, this will be the 7th and final show in the series.
“While my interest and studies and ponderings have led me through history and religion and geo-political events, at the same time, as an artist, I am interested in the artist’s activity of physically making objects in traditional ways while living in the 21st Century’s technology,” Birk says. So, Birk’s pages superimpose finely lettered chapters of the Qur’an onto modern scenes: a NASCAR race, modern-day shoppers in a grocery store, a divorcing couple, a Manhattan street on 9/11. “Given the global situation,” he told the New York Times in 2009, the Qur’an may be the most important book on Earth, but few Americans know anything about it. I’m attempting to create visual metaphors that … make it more accessible to Americans, more relevant to American life.”
“Historically, the Qur’an has been as influential to the world as the Bible, having shaped the world for more than 1,000 years,” Birk said recently. “World events of the past decade and longer -- from 9/11 to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Somalia, Israel, and the ‘Arab Spring’ of last year -- reaffirm the Qur’an’s continued importance and influence on global politics, yet it still being misunderstood and unfamiliar by Western culture.”
The time Birk spent making the images in Sandow Birk: American Qur’an, touched him deeply, yet he is not a Muslim nor does he come from any particular religious background.
“The Holy Qur’an has been a revelation and an inspiration, a companion, and a nemesis,” he says Birk. “It’s the nagging angel on my shoulder telling me to get back to work, to do the right thing, to finish what I have begun, to be true at my work, do my best, be my best, and take nothing for granted.”
An exhibit that gets back to the roots of Islam could not come at a more auspicious time, given the strife in the Middle East, many Americans’ suspicions about the religion, and as millions of Muslims around the world strive to show that their religion is not the Islam of ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other radical groups. Sandow Birk: American Qur’an transcends art for art’s sake. The exhibit conveys a historic significance that is relevant to our world’s global issues.
“One thing about the project that was foreseen and unforeseen at the same time was its continual relevance in contemporary discourse,” says Birk. “The Holy Qur’an is an eternal book – its relevance in the world, of course, would not diminish over the course of a five-year or ten-year art project, obviously. Yet the manner in which the American discomfort and misunderstanding and mistrust of a branch of monotheism so similar to their own Christian viewpoint has remained so vast, so far apart, has been disheartening. Perhaps that’s my own naïveté,” Birk says. “If I were a more religious person, I perhaps would have been more accustomed to the enormous importance of splitting hairs and turns of phrases in religious discourse. But the similarities of the three major religions seem to far outweigh their differences, from an ‘outsider’ point of view. That fact that Americans remain no closer to understanding Islam or less hostile to Islam over the course of this project makes it feel that the project is still worthwhile and relevant.”
Sandow Birk: American Qur’an includes 32 hand-painted pages, a hand crafted ceramic mihrab, and 3 newly-completed paintings created for the first time in this project. An opening reception will be held Saturday, September 13, 4:00-6:00 p.m.