Becoming Part of the American Fabric

By Anarwala, Zeeba | Islamic Horizons, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Becoming Part of the American Fabric


Anarwala, Zeeba, Islamic Horizons


Muslims showcase contemporary art in Pittsburgh.

"THE QURAN IS THE QURAN - IT IS everything or nothing," says Los Angeles-based contemporary artist Sandow Birk about his "American Quran" project. Birk and eight other artists are displaying their work at an exhibit that merges, for the first time in the Midwest, the seemingly disjointed realms of Islamic art and contemporary art.

"Dis [Locating] Culture: Contemporary Islamic Art in America," which runs at the Michael Berger Gallery in Pittsburgh through the end of July, aims to emphasize the interconnectedness between Muslims and others in America.

Gallery owner Michael Bergers purpose in bringing the exhibit to Pittsburgh was to build bridges of understanding between religions, while firmly situating contemporary Islamic art within the American sphere, says co-curator Reem Alalusi.

"Contemporary Islamic Art is neither Eastern nor Western; it is contemporary art, full stop," says Alalusi, a Cambridge-educated art historian who specializes in Middle Eastern and Islamic art. She says it's important to appreciate the complexity of the term "Islamic art."

"Islamic art can be characterized as ... a layer transposed on top of already existent communities. In this way, we can have American Islamic art, Chinese Islamic art, and all the rest," she says.

The exhibit features Muslims and non-Muslim artists, as well as native-born and naturalized citizens. Some artists have chosen to incorporate Eastern cultural themes into their artwork while other pieces bear no Eastern references.

"These artists weave their diasporic stories into the fabric of the American story, another very American thing to do, since we are, after all, a nation of immigrants," Alalusi says.

The artists were chosen for depth of knowledge as well as praxis, refinement of technique and suitability to the gallery's goals. The gallery has taken care to display a variety of facets of the artwork, such as political discourse and traditional techniques, Alalusi explains. Artists Amir Fallah and Shiva Ahmadi focus on political-themed art while Farah Ossouli works with the traditionalist miniature form of her native Iran.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing art for the Muslim community might be that of Birk. He has undertaken the enormous task of hand-transcribing the entire English-translation of the Quran. Surrounding the words are modern-day depictions of American life such as men on a golf course, the World Trade Center burning and the faithful gathered outside a church. Birk emphasizes that his main intention wasn't to send a message about Islam and Muslims through his art; it was a personal exercise to discover how the Quran could relate to his life. …

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