October 9, 2009

American Qur'an

I came across this news article yesterday about an art project entitled American Qur'an by the American artist Sandow Birk. Birk has been working on illustrating all of the Surahs in the Qur'an (he's about half-finished) in an effort to show other non-Muslims (American Christians in particular) how the Qur'an relates to life in the 21st century.

In Birk's version, each chapter of the Quran has been carefully copied in English in a calligraphy modeled on the urban graffiti of America's inner cities. The stark black text is bordered by scenes from American life both mundane and extraordinary: gangsters flashing signs, Hurricane Katrina's devastation, migrants working the fields, a crowded airport lounge and a raging California wildfire among them.

Each painting relates to the sura, or chapter, it illustrates, either literally or metaphorically, Birk said.

Although Birk doesn't use the actual Arabic Qur'an, he flouts one Islamic art tradition by incorporating images of people in the paintings. I understand why he has done this and, in certain ways, it has brought some of the surahs to life in a way I think many non-Muslims wouldn't otherwise get. But I also find myself preferring our way of doing art, without the humanity involved in the picture.

Some of the reactions to the project have been predictable. On the one hand:

Koplin Del Rio Gallery owners Sugar Elisa Brown and Eleana Del Rio braced for controversy when the show opened last month. They have been surprised and encouraged by the muted reaction: they have received only a handful of odd or threatening e-mails and some Muslims have written to express their appreciation. Surprisingly, some of the most vocal critics have been those who believe Birk's work portrays Islam in too positive a light, they said.

How terrible! Islam is being shown in "too positive a light." On the other hand:

Still, not everyone has appreciated the exhibit, including some Muslim religious leaders who believe the project degrades the Quran. Critic Mohammad Qureshi, administrator of the Islamic Center of Southern California, has refused to visit the gallery or look at pictures of the panels posted on the Internet.

"The Quran is above these things. It doesn't need to be depicted in that way," Qureshi said. "The Quran is accessible the way it is. It's been accessible for 1,400 years, so it doesn't need anything to make it more accessible."

I agree somewhat with this opinion; the Qur'an is above these things and is accessible the way it is. However, I feel the overall criticism is too heavy-handed. If the artwork brings the Qur'an to life in a way that brings non-Muslims to Islam, does that not make the artwork beneficial?

The art is currently being exhibited at two galleries in California, Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. The two links have a combined 50+ images, with the first link, to the Koplin Del Rio Gallery, having larger images that are easier to view. As for the English translations being used, Birk apparently is using several different translators for his work. Below are four pictures from the project that I found of interest. The first, of course, is Surah al-Fatihah:

This next picture is for Surah al-Adiyat (#100; The Chargers). It's an interesting juxtaposition between the first few verses of the surah with the colorful spectacle of NASCAR racecars thundering down the track:

By the (Steeds) that run, with panting (breath), And strike sparks of fire, And push home the charge in the morning, And raise the dust in clouds the while, And penetrate forthwith into the midst (of the foe) en masse;-" (100:1-5)

The last two are for Surah al-Qamar (#54; The Moon), showing a hurricane (Katrina?) raging over an ocean...

...with a space station and the moon floating peacefully overhead.

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