American Qur'an: Sura 54

Sandow Birk American

Not on view

In the years following September 11, 2001, Birk grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as a willful ignorance on the part of many Americans to engage with Islam beyond gross stereotypes, not to mention a complete lack of engagement with its very fine history of artistic and literary production. Moreover, the artist himself felt he was not as familiar as he should be with its fundamental texts. Using time spent on fellowships in Dublin (where the Chester Beatty Library holds many hundreds of examples of hand-illuminated Islamic sacred books) and elsewhere, Birk studied the Qur'an and the many ways in which it had been decorated by artists over the years.

As a direct result of this research, Birk conceived of a project wherein he would hand-copy and illuminate all the Suras of the Qur'an using images from contemporary life. For each panel in the series, Birk copies out the verse by hand (in his signature, graffiti-inflected script) from a scholarly translation now in the public domain, adds elaborate borders culled from his research of historic copies of the book, and illuminates each episode with scenes that both match and have some dissonance with the sacred text. The finished drawings are marvelous in their detail and cast a new light on texts that still remain unfamiliar to so many.

American Qur'an: Sura 54, Sandow Birk (American, born Detroit, Michigan, 1962), Acrylic, opaque watercolor, pen and blue and black inks, and metallic paints on paper

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