Feb. 10, 2012 | Des Moines Register | Written by MICHAEL MORAIN
Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk has spent a good chunk of the last six years hand-writing an English translation of the Quran and illustrating it with scenes of modern American life.
He is not Muslim. He is not even very religious. He’s a surfer.His search for good waves took him to the coasts of Morocco, India, Indonesia and the southern Philippines — all places with sizable Muslim populations — and he wanted to learn more, especially when Islam became such a hot topic in the early 2000s. So he started reading its sacred text.
“Given the global situation right now, the Quran may be the most important book on earth, but few Americans know anything about it,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “I’m attempting to create visual metaphors that go along with the text and hopefully make it more accessible to Americans, more relevant to American life.”
More than half of his results — 61 chapters of the Quran’s 114, neatly painted on paper — are on display through March 18 at the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College. The gallery’s associate director, Daniel Strong, first saw the project in New York, bought a few panels for the college’s permanent collection and arranged for the touring exhibition to visit Iowa.
“You can’t see something like this and say Islam is alien to American life,” he said during a lap through the gallery earlier this week. He pointed to a chapter about giving alms to the poor, which Birk illustrated with a beggar holding a sign: “Iraq vet. No job. Please help.”
“You can’t get more topical than that,” Strong said.
There are familiar scenes elsewhere, too, rendered in watercolor and gouache around each handwritten chapter. A garbage truck makes the rounds near a scripture about daybreak. Race cars stand in for war horses in a passage about “the chargers, snorting, striking sparks of fire, attacking in the morning, leaving dust behind them.” A pregnant woman and a man with a red pickup face off in a panel about divorce.
The artist says the images are not direct illustrations of the text but rather reflections of his own personal meditations, which is an important distinction with regard to one of the few images of a specific place and time. For the chapter about “a day when the sky will bring forth a smoke which will overwhelm the people,” Birk painted a crowd gathering in lower Manhattan to watch black smoke billowing from the World Trade Center.
“He was keen not to sugar-coat it,” Strong said. “If you’re going to talk about Islam in America, some things are unavoidable.”
The artist has made clear, however, that he thinks the 9/11 attacks were the work of “fanatics with their own agendas and not representative of an entire, global religion.”
It’s worth pointing out that the text on display is not technically the Quran, since Muslims believe the scriptures are holy only in Arabic, the language in which the prophet Muhammad’s scribes originally recorded them, in the early seventh century. Furthermore, many Muslims believe the Quran should be ornamented only with abstract curlicues and geometric patterns, “steering clear of human or animal representations for fear of raising the profane to the level of the sacred,” according to Grinnell’s Caleb Elfenbein, who teaches religion and history and led a recent gallery talk.
Birk was aware that his American Quran might prompt a backlash, but reaction here in Iowa has been warm.
“It was really overwhelming,” said local restaurateur and Egyptian native Kamal Hammouda, who participated in a panel talk about the show last month. “For him to be able to conceptualize my faith through his everyday life in America, that was awesome.
“Islam urges people to explore, to learn, to contemplate, and what he’s doing is just that.”
The artist committed to the project partly for the tactile, meditative experience of writing each word by hand, like another artist who transcribed the Torah at the Jewish Museum of San Francisco, and the scribes who illuminated the St. John’s Bible, which has been displayed several times in Iowa in recent years. In the age of Kindle and iPad, writing by hand takes on a new sense of ritual.
“There’s something mesmerizing about it,” said Strong, the curator. “There’s something more tangible than what might flicker across the TV or the computer screen.”
And speaking of screens: A replica of an ATM the artist built from ceramic tiles stands in the middle of the gallery, facing toward the east. It represents a prayer niche, or mihrab, which helps Muslims align themselves toward Mecca, the cradle of Islam in Saudi Arabia.
“This mihrab takes the form of a more ubiquitous ‘niche’ in the American experience,” the artist wrote on a card nearby. “As you withdraw your money or (perhaps a better metaphor) you check your balance, the text … provides advice for further transactions: Be modest in your bearing. Always be just. Be true to every promise. Truly with hardship comes ease.”