Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Qamar Adamjee as a member of the audience. Adamjee, as stated earlier in the article, is the associate curator of South Asian Art at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and led the night’s discussion. The Daily regrets the error.
Artist Sandow Birk presented his American Qur’an project as part of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies event series “We the People: Islam and U.S. Politics.” The project is Birk’s attempt to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an, illuminating the text with scenes from contemporary American life.
The event consisted of a presentation by Birk on his influences, a discussion with Qamar Adamjee, who is the associate curator of South Asian Art at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and a Q&A session. Throughout the event, Birk projected pages of his work overhead.
Each page features chapters or parts of chapters of the Qur’an, in its 1861 J. M. Rodwell translation, set against scenes of contemporary American life. The scenes included museum visitors at a dinosaur exhibit, customers at a grocery store checkout line and diners in a Chinese restaurant — as well as war images featuring American soldiers.
The pages are in the standard size of ancient Qur’an manuscripts. Birk said he also used the border motifs and system of verse numbering present in traditional Qur’ans.
Vincent Barletta, interim director of the Abbasi Program, listed Burk’s illustrious credentials, which include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, a Fulbright Fellowship in 1997 and posts as artist in residence at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2008.
Burk, however, introduced himself as a “mere painter.”
He continued to describe his upbringing, education and dedication to surfing, mentioning his early work depicting the 1992 Los Angeles riots and a fictional war between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
His first step toward the American Qur’an project came when he stumbled upon a used copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in a bookstore, and embarked on five-year project to illustrate and rewrite the entire work into contemporary American slang.
“I became interested in the idea of text and imagery, and that the pictures weren’t really illustration, but sort of commentary on a text — the opposite of what illustrations are,” Birk said.
After creating a series of etchings on the Iraq war, Birk became aware that the image of Islam in America differed from what he had experienced on his surfing travels to Islamic regions of the world.
He picked up a paperback copy of the Qur’an and began entertaining the idea of creating an illuminated manuscript version of the ancient Islamic text.
“I … intentionally went about this project with a false naiveté,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Let’s just forget everything I know or have been told about the Qur’an and take it at face value.’”
“I read the verses and I think, ‘What is there in my life as an American, as a Californian, that is metaphorical to this or that is connected to it somehow?’” he said. “I start by transcribing the words and building the framework, and over the course of a number of days pondering the words of the chapter I’ve read.”
He presented a few of his pages, commenting on the connections he made between text and image.
To accompany a passage about the Prophet Mohammed’s role as a messenger to the world, Birk chose to depict a printing press showing modern day communication. To accompany a passage mentioning the Virgin Mary, Birk drew a corner store from his Hispanic Los Angeles neighborhood where the Virgin Mary is painted on the side of the store. Passages on the flood of Noah were accompanied by images of Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s hard to comprehend destruction of that scale,” Birk said of the catastrophes in both the Qur’an and the Bible. “But then you think I do remember what it’s like when a whole city is wiped out by flood.”
He explained his approach of juxtaposing the sacred text against scenes of daily life, describing his intended audience as average Americans who “might not necessarily know anything about the Qur’an.”
“So often your brain is thinking about these enormous beyond worldly things,” he said. “You’re thinking about life, you’re thinking about life after life; but as your brain is thinking these things you’re standing in line at the ATM machine.”
Birk plans to complete all 220 pages and compile them in a book, as well as hold exhibitions of all the works in the next 18 months.
The artwork prompted mixed responses from the audience, with some members taking offense of the perceived insensitivity towards the sacred text. Audience members also questioned the association of violence with the Qur’an in a response to the war images accompanying some of the text. Several audience members said they were “disturbed” by the pieces.
Others, however, insisted that the project brought the Qur’an to Americans in an accessible manner.
Birk repeatedly emphasized his role as an artist and not a religious scholar.
“The images aren’t meant to be didactic,” he said. “They’re not meant to tell you anything. They’re meant to be my own ponderings.”
“The images aren’t illustrations of the text they’re not pictures of what the text says. They’re metaphors for what could possibly be suggested by the text,” he continued.
He also touched on the potential cross-cultural understanding his project could spark.
“My happiness and wonder at the Qur’an since I’ve started reading it is it’s just so familiar,” Birk said. “Coming from a Western Christian culture, it’s the same stories…It’s Adam and Eve, it’s Noah’s Ark…It’s such a familiar message. It’s so astonishing to me the clash between the two cultures.”
Adamjee closed the talk commenting on the role of art.
“One of the things that artworks do is create questions, force us to look along at things that are taken for granted that are often taken over by a mainstream dialogue,” Adamjee said. “That’s what keeps us active and keeps us engaged … We need this type of artwork to generate conversation to generate dialogue; we need these types of jolts to our system every so often.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center and the Cantor Arts Center.