American Qur’an

Shotgun Review

American Qur’an

By Terri Cohn September 24, 2015

One of the most striking aspects of Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an series, exhibited at Catharine Clark Gallery, was how its groupings of exquisitely rendered text and image panels brought to mind stained-glass windows. As my thoughts wandered to personal experiences of such panes in religious edifices around the world, a closer look at Birk’s images revealed that his Qur’an intentionally seeks to lure the eye with surface beauty, which he then upstages with text and images that raise questions and subvert our expectations of what a Qur’an might offer.

American Qur’an (2004‒2011) was Birk’s response, initially, to the events of 9/11. He knew little about Islam, and overwhelmed by the sensationalist way in which American media portrays Islam as inherently violent, he decided to create this work. In Birk’s version of the Qur’an, each beautifully rendered sura (chapter) has the aura of a page in a devotional book or illuminated manuscript. In the tradition of creating a Qur’an, he transcribed the text and followed its technical guidelines (ink colors, formatting, margin sizes, illuminations of page headings, and marking of passages). Most significantly, Birk’s Qur’an pays respect to the original intention of this holy book, which is to offer a universal message to humankind. 

Sandow Birk. Sura 74, 2010 from the series American Qur’an; gouache, acrylic and ink on paper; 16 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. 

Yet Birk’s adaptation portrays American people engaged in the most mundane activities—from doing laundry and working in fields to teens washing cars—which are juxtaposed with the 114 suras, offering up a picture of our society that is at times humorous, and often at odds with the exquisite rendering and illustration of the text. One such example is Sura 15 (2010), in which we see huge trucks driving in mud, and two potbellied men at one side photographing the event; a second panel portrays people picnicking in an RV park and campground. Among the images featured in this show, one of the most ironic and touching is Sura 74 (2010), in which a workman atop a ladder installing a satellite dish is juxtaposed with text that states, “But none are mindful unless it is the will of god,” suggesting that when god is “channeled” into our living rooms, things might improve.

The most resonant work in this show is The Riddle of the Sphinx (2007), an update on Ingres’ 19th-century painting Oedipus and the Sphinx. Birk’s update depicts a combat-uniformed soldier in face-to-face negotiation with the sphinx, an image that emerged as part of his 2002 series The Depravities of War, a response to the events of 9/11. Birk’s painting evokes one of the fundamental questions raised by our fraught 21st-century relationship with the Middle East and Islamic world: Will we be able to answer the ancient riddle of the sphinx to finally move past war as our default response to ideological differences? And if we can answer the sphinx’s question, will this enable us to ultimately achieve an understanding that we are all people seeking similar answers in different ways?


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American Qu’ran is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through August 22, 2015.

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