American Qur'an: Sandow Birk at Catharine Clark

Sandow Birk, American Qur'an/ Sura 8 (A), 2011 | Gouache and ink on paper, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Sandow Birk’s fourth installment in his American Qu’ran project is currently on view at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, a 114-part series in which the artist has tediously transcribed each prayer of the Quran (in English), and illuminated the page with a scene from American life, his own interpretation of each particular passage. The text is done in a typeface inspired by Cholo graffiti, a style native to East LA, and the scenes vary from the politically loaded to the mundane. In their final forms, these works are a merging of the artist’s identity growing up in Southern California, and an attempt to connect an oft-misunderstood religious text to an American audience.  —Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor 

Installation view, Sandow Birk: American Qur'an: New Works. Sculptures: Al Farrow. Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

The nature of the Quran is that it's meant to be memorized and recited (the word Quran means ‘recitation’), a practice that has evolved into rhythmic and musical variations. In fact, when the Quran is recited, it often sounds more like an a cappella song than a prayer. I found a poetic connection between the repetitive nature of recitation and memorization and the skilled rendering of each drawing and transcription. The artist has paid the utmost attention to every detail, from the hand-bordered pages, to the tattooed inmates in his penitentiary-scene interpretation of Sura 12 (Joseph). He has also chosen to work with a color palette that stays true to many illustrated Qurans: red, blue, and gold.

Birk’s interest in the Quran stems from his recent travels in the Arab world, and a resulting interest in how the book’s meaning would fit into the life of an average contemporary American. One of the most poignant pieces in the show is Sura 8 (Spoils of War), in which the artist has used scenes from a Mobil gas station, American troops in what is likely Iraq or Afghanistan, and a prison yard that appears to be Guantanamo Bay, leaving one to infer his thought process in relating the images with this particular passage. The piece is brave and timely, and in one fell swoop confronts the viewer with issues of race, religion, politics, consumerism, and war. When one considers the text of this passage, and its discussion of the essentially transient quality of wealth and war spoils, the piece impels a very legitimate question: Is it worth it? In our global pursuit of resources, do the costs outweigh the benefits?

Sandow Birk. TOP: American Qur'an/ Sura 8 (B), 2011. BOTTOM: American Qur'an/ Sura 8 (C), 2011. Gouache and ink on paper, 16 x 24 inches each. Courtesy the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Although I do acknowledge that artists must sell their work to survive, if Birk’s true objective is to make the Quran less threatening and esoteric, he may be preaching to choir. In fact, the work might even be more controversial in most of the cities it’s been shown in thus far — San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburg — precisely because his audience there is so diverse and knowledgeable of Islam. Unfortunately, the communities in which there exists the most intolerance and lack of understanding are between the two coasts. Hopefully, if Birk is sincere about his project’s purpose, he can explore other ways to connect with an audience beyond the diverse metropolitan areas of the US.

I would be remiss to not mention Al Farrow’s sculptural creations that are also on display throughout the galleries. The models of religious buildings and reliquaries are constructed from ammunition and gun parts. From afar the structures create a shimmering, mosaiced surface, and only upon closer inspection does one discover the walls buttressed with revolvers, arches, and minarets created from steel barrels. Farrow’s sculptures together with Birk’s drawings create a powerful message on the ubiquity of violence and religion, and the unfortunate link between them that has become an inherent part of our consciousness.

Al Farrow, Bombed Mosque, 2010 | Guns, bullets, steel, 40 x 56 x 34 inches. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Sandow Birk: American Qur'an: New Works and Al Farrow: Reliquaries is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery through May 28th

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

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