Sandow Birk

Visual Artist Sandow Birk Visits Duke

People look at American Qur'an

Audience members pursue Birk’s “American Qur’an” photo by Catherine Angst

by Angela Griffe

As part of the Wednesday at the Center series, the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies welcomed Sandow Birk to speak about his lifetime of work in visual arts.

The John Hope Franklin Center, Duke Islamic Studies Center, and Duke Middle East Studies Center co-hosted the event which focused on a few of Birk’s long-term art projects. After graduating from Otis/Parson’s Art Institute, Birk applied his knowledge of classical European art and reinvented famous works into modern pieces depicting California surf culture. Birk would continue this theme of paralleling classic works to reflect scenes from modern life throughout his career.

Upon becoming more integrated in his Los Angeles community, Birk started depicting scenes from LA criminal culture, again, invoking classic European paintings. When Rodney King was shot and L.A. riots began, Birk began to use his platform as a means of historical record keeping and political advocacy.

Birk’s next project was a two-year endeavor to paint all 32 California state prisons. The project was a chance to reconcile and challenge the fact that California is often depicted as an American paradise, a garden of Eden in traditional American landscape paintings, but yet California holds the largest number of incarcerated people in the world. Painting these prisons in their remote and natural locations juxtaposes California’s beauty with the pressing issue of mass incarceration.

A few years later at the height of the Iraq War, Birk was invited to the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center in Maui, Hawai’i to work with printmaker, Paul Mullowney. The two, along with Birk’s wife Elyse Pignolet, created a series of 15 woodblock prints telling the story of the Iraq War. Again, Birk took inspiration from classical European art, this time modeling his Iraq War prints after Jacques Callot’s print series on the Thirty Years’ War.

During this period, Birk was working on a series of paintings that depict imaginary scenes from the Iraq War. Both the prints and paintings were politically-charged critiques that led Birk to question American views towards Islam. The result was Birk’s “American Qur’an” a 9-year project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an according to historic Islamic traditions, illuminating the text with relevant scenes from American life. Working on the project, Birk realized how “remarkably familiar” the Qur’an felt in relation to American-Christian culture.

Birk is currently working on transcribing important documents and texts, such as the U.S. Constitution, and reimagining them as monuments. Birk is specifically interested in texts that are often overlooked or forgotten, Christopher Columbus’s letter to Queen Isabella of Spain and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to name a few. By focusing on these historically important texts and retrofitting them into a modern context, Birk holds a critical flame to U.S. history.