Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art Explores Islam and American Culture in “Sandow Birk: American Qur’an” Exhibition

The exhibition is on view at the JSMA from January 21 to March 19, 2017


EUGENE, Ore. -- (November 29, 2016) – The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus presents the exhibition “Sandow Birk: American Qur’an” from Jan. 21 through March 19, 2017.  Taking over a decade to complete, “American Qur’an,” is Sandow Birk’s most ambitious project to date. Every verse of the holy book of Islam is hand‐transcribed by the artist and illustrated, using the calligraphy of the individual verses to frame scenes of contemporary American life.  The exhibition opens with a free reception on Friday, January 20, from 6-8 p.m.


Inspired by travel in the Islamic regions of the world, informed by extensive research in collections of Islamic art and manuscripts, and responding to the events of September 11, Birk became convinced that despite the U.S. having recently engaged in wars with Muslim nations as well as stateless organizations, the text of the Qur’an offers universal principles intended for all nations. Taking that precept as a given, Birk’s approach explores how the Qur’an might be more meaningful to Americans in the second decade of the 21st century.


“Through his scholarly research and travel to countries with significant Muslim populations,” says Jill Hartz, JSMA executive director and in-house curator of the exhibition, “Sandow Birk gained an appreciation of the richness and diversity of Islam and its practice today.  He then conceived of this project, which aims to build a bridge or dialog between Islam and American life for the purpose of appreciating our shared humanity.”


The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters, or suras, which are typically arranged from longest to shortest. Using an English translation, Birk, an American artist residing in California, created individual gouache paintings of the text rendered in elaborate script based on Los Angeles graffiti tags and scenes from contemporary American life. Birk’s positioning of the text over the images results in a blocking of parts of the contemporary scenes, with the specifics of place, character and event partially and intentionally obscured. The exhibition features approximately 200 ink and gouaches on paper paintings, two large-scale paintings not related directly to the Qur’an and ceramics. “Sandow Birk: American Qur’an” was first presented at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2015-16.  This is the first time the show will be seen in an academic museum.  Accompanying the exhibition is a 400-page book, published by Catherine Clark Gallery and W. W. Norton and Company, New York, with essays by Zreena Grewal and Iftikhar Dadi and a preface by Reza Aslan. 


Two talks and a gallery tour are scheduled for the opening week. On Thursday, January 19, at noon, Birk and his primary gallerist, Catherine Clark, will hold a public conversation of the “The Gallery-Artist Relationship,” moderated by Jill Hartz. On Saturday, January 21, at 1 p.m., Birk will lead a gallery tour of the exhibition, followed by a panel discussion with the artist; Rick Colby, Associate Professor, Religious Studies; and Angela Joya, Assistant Professor, International Studies; and others to be confirmed called “Whose Qur’an?” at 2 p.m. All events take place at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.  


The exhibition and its programs are made possible by the Coeta and Donald Barker Changing Exhibitions Endowment, The Oregon Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation, the University of Oregon Office of Academic Affairs and Oregon Humanities Center.


About the Artist

Over the last 20 years, Birk (b. 1962) has focused on the vision and scope of history painting through an examination of issues of contemporary relevance. Birk has gained international attention over the years for his epic-scale projects in a range of media that address wars, propaganda, hot button political issues, graffiti, inner city violence and contemporary American life.


Birk is a graduate of the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. He received an NEA International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and a Fulbright Fellowship to Rio de Janeiro for 1997. In 1999, he was awarded a Getty Fellowship for painting, followed by a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship in 2001.He was an artist in residence at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., in 2007 and at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2008, and most recently was an artist in residence at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland.  In 2014, he was named a United States Artists Fellow.



About the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

The University of Oregon's Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is a premier Pacific Northwest museum for exhibitions and collections of historic and contemporary art based in a major university setting. The mission of the museum is to enhance the University of Oregon’s academic mission and to further the appreciation and enjoyment of the visual arts for the general public.  The JSMA features significant collections galleries devoted to art from China, Japan, Korea, the Americas and Europe as well as changing special exhibition galleries.  The JSMA is one of seven museums in Oregon accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.


The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is located on the University of Oregon campus at 1430 Johnson Lane. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for senior citizens. Free admission is given to ages 18 and under, JSMA members, college students with ID, and University of Oregon faculty, staff and students. For information, contact the JSMA, 541-346-3027.


About the University of Oregon

The University of Oregon is among the 108 institutions chosen from 4,633 U.S. universities for top-tier designation of "Very High Research Activity" in the 2010 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The UO also is one of two Pacific Northwest members of the Association of American Universities.


Contact: Debbie Williamson Smith, 541-346-0942,


Links: Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art,

Sandow Birk,