First, let's get the spelling straight, and then we'll talk about the art. If you have a choice between Qur'an or Koran, go with the former — it's closer to the way it's pronounced.
With that, we can move to American Qur'an, an ongoing series of paintings by Sandow Birk. Over the past five years, the renowned Los Angeles artist has tapped into his own travel and research to complete works representing 108 of the 114 suras (chapters) of the Muslim holy book. Birk hand-transcribes the verse, using traditional guidelines (for ink colors, formatting and more) that have been passed down for centuries.
What makes it American? Well, the text is in English. But beyond that, Birk uses a kind of calligraphy he sees daily in his neighborhood: graffiti lettering. What's more, instead of traditional illuminations, the images he uses can only be described as scenes from everyday American life: office cubicles humming with workers, race-car tracks, suburban neighborhoods.
"His images are direct and very accessible," says Jessica Hunter-Larsen, curator of the I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College. "He demonstrates that, at its core, the practice of Islam by the majority of its followers is not unknowable to us. In fact, the tenets set forth and the values promoted will seem quite familiar to viewers."
Last fall, inspired by 2011's Arab Spring events and by Robin Wright's book, Rock the Casbah, CC began a year of Islamic exploration with a series of films and artistic endeavors that adapted traditional Islamic themes. The American Qur'an exhibition, opening Jan. 21, will continue this process by bringing 83 of Birk's pieces to campus for almost two months.
The exhibit is open to the public, and Hunter-Larsen hopes people will learn something from the panels that comprise the project. She says that often Islam is discussed "only through the lens of extremism," which has led people to believe that the core of the religion is about violence and intolerance. "As with many religious faiths," she says, "the vast majority of Muslims value peace and reject extremism."
There is a little push-back from some traditionalists who see American Qur'an as defying the Islamic edict to spurn depiction of the human form — and potential idolatry — in art. To that, Hunter-Larsen says the exhibition "serves as a teaching tool for a non-Muslim audience," and "neither the artist, nor the presenting institutions intend to be disrespectful."
What Hunter-Larsen would like for the community to take away from the exhibition is to understand the world from another perspective. Doing this, she says, often reveals that there are more points of convergence between cultures than there are differences.
"There are elements of comfort and those of discomfort," she says of American Qur'an. "As a whole, the suite of images provides a range of emotional, philosophical and visual experiences."