“Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an” will open Fri., Jan. 27 at Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery. The exhibition, organized by The Andy Warhol Museum of Pittsburgh, will be on view in Grinnell through Mar. 18.
Birk, a California-based artist, has been engaged for the past six years in transcribing and illustrating an English translation of the 114 Suras, or chapters, of the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text. Based on traditional models of manuscript illumination, Birk’s adaptation combines handwritten text with images drawn from contemporary American life. The Faulconer Gallery exhibition includes 85 painted panels from the ongoing project, which the artist plans to complete in 2014.
Birk was drawn to the Qur’an out of curiosity, seeking to educate himself about a book that many have formed opinions about, but fewer have actually read. “Given the global situation, the Qur’an may be the most important book on Earth, but few Americans know anything about it,” Birk 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.”
Six of the panels in the exhibition, representing chapters 36 and 37 from the total 114, are part of Grinnell College’s permanent art collection, purchased in 2010.
“The purpose of the college’s art collection is education, and it is the Faulconer Gallery’s mission to use the collection in provocative ways to foster greater understanding,” said Daniel Strong, associate director of the gallery and curator of exhibitions. “Here is an artist who, when he’s completed the project, will have spent a decade of his life studying and interpreting the Qur’an solely for the purpose of educating himself about it.”
Strong explains that while most of the imagery is relatively benign, the artist found it impossible to avoid controversial events that have recently defined American life, such as devastation by Hurricane Katrina (one of the chapters in the college’s collection) and at the World Trade Center (in a chapter titled “Smoke”). “Art is a perfect means to launch the discussion. The Qur’an can’t be reduced to a few incendiary passages, nor can they or should they be disregarded. This exhibition is a quest for fuller understanding through beautifully executed art,” Strong said.
Educational programming, organized by Tilly Woodward, curator of academic and public outreach, also provides a wide variety of platforms to learn about Islam, including an open invitation for reading of the Qur’an. “Gallery visitors are invited to read aloud from the Qur’an in any language that feels right to them. We believe their experience will be enhanced from listening and reading. All are welcome to come,” Woodward said.
All events sponsored by Faulconer Gallery are free, open to the public, and located in the gallery unless otherwise noted:
• Jan. 27, 4:15-6 p.m.: Opening reception.
• Jan. 30, 4:15 p.m.: Panel discussion on “Islam in Iowa” with Kamal Hammouda, adjunct Muslim prayer leader; Mervat Youssef, assistant professor of French and Arabic; and Imam Taha Tawil of the Mother Mosque of America, who will speak on their experiences as Muslims in the state.
• Feb. 9, 4:15 p.m.: Student roundtable on “The Qur’an in America,” facilitated by Caleb Elfenbein, assistant professor of religious studies and history.
• Feb. 11, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Community Day with a variety of hands-on activities.
• Feb. 15, 7:30 p.m.: Open mic night, co-sponsored by Grinnell Review and Grinnell College Libraries, featuring original works by Grinnell students and others who wish to share favorite writers or composers.
• Feb. 16, 4:15 p.m.: “Visualizing Islamophobia” discussion with Max Leung, lecturer in sociology, based on his research on the identities of Arabs and Muslims in America.
• Feb. 28, 4:15 p.m.: Gallery talk by artist Sandow Birk, discussing his ongoing project.
• Thursdays, Feb. 9-Mar. 15, 12:15-12:50 p.m.: Yoga with Monica St. Angelo. Co-sponsored by Live Well Grinnell. Mats provided for beginners and experienced practitioners.
More educational events will be offered in March. Faulconer Gallery, located in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, 1108 Park St. on the Grinnell campus, is open Tuesday-Wednesday, noon to 5 p.m., Thursday-Friday, noon to 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. For more information about the exhibition and related programs, call 641-269-4660 or visit www.grinnell.edu/faulconergallery.