Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an Project at Kittredge Gallery

March 3, 2014

March 10–April 12, 2014.
Public Reception Wednesday, March 12

TACOMA, Wash.During March and early April, Kittredge Gallery will be showing selections from California artist Sandow Birk’s ongoing project American Qur’an.

Around 2005, as an outgrowth of his travels in Islamic countries and as a response to political events around the world, including the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Birk began to read and closely study the Qur’an in order to better understand Islam.

Over the course of his studies, he began to envision an art project that would result in what he calls “a personal Qur’an,” a series of artworks that would explore how this important religious text relates to contemporary American life, and thereby help him and his viewers develop a more nuanced understanding of Islam.

Since beginning the project, Birk’s travels have included repeated research visits to a variety of places, from Africa to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines and the Andaman Islands of India. He also has spent time at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, and at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, home to one of the largest and finest collections of hand-illuminated Qur’ans in the world. Further research was done at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C., and the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Portugal.

Birk hopes that others will be inspired to think in broader terms about the Qur’an, and what it intrinsically means to be Muslim; that it is not a state of “otherness” but instead a shared experience of the world through a lens of different cultures.

The Qur’an is the fundamental text of Islam and records the words of God as communicated through the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century C.E. The text is divided into 114 chapters called suras.

Birk has been hand transcribing an English-translated text of the Qur’an using traditional guidelines as to the formatting of the pages, colors of the inks, and small images, called illuminations, for page headings. His lettering is based on the urban graffiti he finds around his Los Angeles neighborhood.

Using a style that draws upon historical Arabic and Persian miniature painting, he creates images that pair each handwritten sura with relevant scenes from contemporary American life. The exhibition includes a selection of ten multipanel suras from American Qur’an, as well as two collaborative works Birk has created with his wife, artist Elyse Pignolet. Several works also will be on view at Puget Sound’s Collins Memorial Library.

Birk is a graduate of the Otis Art Institute of Parson's School of Design. He was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995 to study mural painting, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and in 1997 a Fulbright Fellowship in painting for study in Rio de Janeiro. In 1999 he was awarded a Getty Foundation Fellowship for painting, followed by a City of Los Angeles Fellowship in 2001. In 2007 he was an artist in residence at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, in 2008.

Birk’s work has been exhibited nationally and is included in a number of public and museum collections, including those of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the New York Historical Society; Stadtisches Kunstmuseum, Reutlingen, Germany; Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma, Italy; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He is represented by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, and P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City. Birk’s past work has emphasized social concerns, including inner-city violence, graffiti, political issues, travel, and war, as well as other aspects of contemporary life and American urban culture. He often creates series over the course of several years that range across media.

Birk will be at Puget Sound for a weeklong residency in mid-March, lecturing and teaching workshops as part of the art department’s new visiting artist program, Living Art.

A public reception for the exhibition will be held on Wednesday, March 12, from 5 to 7 p.m., in the gallery. This reception is free and open to the public.

Kittredge Gallery serves as a teaching tool for the art department and a cultural resource for both the university and the community at large, exhibiting work by noted regional and national artists. Exhibits and talks are free and open to the public. Please note: The gallery will be closed Monday, March 17, through Saturday, March 22, for spring break.

Opening Reception: March 12, 5 to 7 p.m., Kittredge Art Gallery

Gallery Location: University of Puget Sound, N. 15th St. at N. Lawrence St., Tacoma, WA
Directions and Map:
Regular Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Mon.–Fri.; noon–5 p.m., Saturday 

PRESS PHOTOS are available at
Photo on page: American Qur'an/Sura 58, 2011, courtesy of Sandow Birk and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco