From the streets of Baltimore to the hallways of L.A., people are declaring, “Enough!” They’re organizing, coming together as a community, and discussing the issues facing Americans daily that we need to take a stand for. On the west coast, Manifest Justice is a 10-day exhibition alongside activities such as group conversations on women’s rights, spoken word poetry performances, classes, screenings, and more. Over 100 artists are participating in the exhibition including Shepard Fairey, Steve Schapiro, and Sandow Birk. Born in Detroit, Sandow Birk’s work highlights prison systems, religious divides, and inner city violence. We caught up with the artist to hear of his experiences and making work that’s about something.
Tell us a little about your personal background. When did you first pick up the paintbrush? What social issues caught your attention from a young age?
I was always the kid who was drawing during math class in elementary school and junior high, but I never thought about becoming an artist until I sort of stumbled on art school by accident. I had been training to be an architect, but I hated math, and once I saw art school, I hooked.
In high school I was very much involved in the nascent punk rock scene around L.A. and hanging out with punks and bands. I was political for how naive I was at that age, but was against such things that were affecting me at the time, such as the Regan era requirement that kids 18 years and older have to register their names in case of a future draft. So I guess I was socially engaged.
Following Otis, you’ve studied in Paris, Bath, and Rio de Janeiro. What sort of lessons and influences did these cities have on your work as an artist?
I actually spent a lot of time in Latin America, traveling all over the continent and Mexico by bus for a year before spending four years in Rio. It had a huge influence on me, especially being poor and hanging out with poor people – like in the favelas in Rio or with truck drivers in Peru, or college kids in Mexico City. The art work I saw there, from street works to museums, and the do-it-yourself nature of things were very inspirational. I still have a lot of friends in Rio and try to go back often.
In Europe the big influence was in seeing the works in the Louvre and the Tate and everything, seeing the big paintings of the Paris salons and the grandiose battles and landscapes. The scale of everything and the importance that was put on art and on painting were very influential to me and my work.
The American Qur’an project spanned over 9 years, taking you to the middle east to examine ancient querns for accuracy and to immerse in the local culture. Can you tell us a bit more about that journey and adapting it into a way American audiences can comprehend?
I had actually traveled quite a bit in Muslim parts of the world before I began the project, due to my surfing travels, and I’d always had fantastic experiences in those various cultures. Once the attacks of 9-11 happened and Americans became obsessed with Islam and there were discussions in the media about whether Islam and Western Culture were fundamentally at odds with each other, and all the negative discussions of Islam, I was very dubious, because the way that Islam was being discussed was nothing like the experiences I had had during my travels. So at some point I got tired of people on the radio telling me what Islam was or wasn’t and I thought I’d just see for myself. After all, Americans often refer to the Bible – an ancient book from the Middle East – as being at the heart and soul of what it means to be American. How could the Qur’an – an ancient book from the Middle East – be so foreign and threatening?
So I bought a copy of the Qur’an and started reading it and learning about it. And the most remarkable thing about the Qur’an was that it was so familiar. So the combination of my personal experiences with Islamic cultures and the text, or the message, of the Qur’an inspired me to begin making an illuminated manuscript of the Holy Qur’an, in English. The idea was to make the message more accessible to an American audience, so that it seemed less foreign.
Despite your travels, you decide to remain in Los Angeles. What keeps drawing you back to L.A.? In what ways does it give you a challenge or inspiration you don’t find anywhere else?
I’ve spent a lot of time in other places and I still try to travel as much as possible, usually several months out of the year. But I love L.A. for lots of reasons, and one of them is that it’s a city that’s very easy to get away from. It’s central to the world, the airport’s nearby, and living in L.A. you can afford to travel – as opposed to living in Rio and earning your paycheck in Brazilian Reales, like I was doing. But I also love the diversity of L.A. and the Mexican-ness of L.A. I’ve always lived in Hispanic neighborhoods and I like my neighbors and the music and the food, and the fact that you can go to the beach and surfing every day and eat Korean for dinner and Armenian food for lunch, and see museum shows and bands play…. I think L.A. is the best place to live, especially if you’re an artist.
And everything that’s happening here is going to happen everywhere else eventually, from immigration issues to environmental issues to political movements and social issues, to fashion and music and food trends…. it all starts here and it’s great to feel that you’re a part of it.
The other day, I had somebody argue with me when I posted something controversial because it was on the internet and “pointless.” How can we galvanize people to realize that speaking of, pointing out, and spreading awareness on these issues can actually make an impact?
Well, that’s an ongoing problem and I’m not sure of the answer. All I know is that in my own work, when I make something, I want it to be interesting to me and be about something I’m interested in. I want my work to be ABOUT something. And then I put my own opinions and feelings into my works and try to say something meaningful. When it’s done, I try to get as many people as possible to see it. That’s all I can do. Whether it changes anything, I’m not sure, but what else can I do beyond making good, interesting work and having people see it?
Manifest Justice aims to promote human rights by combating injustice within our community from racial bias to healthcare reform to education. What are ways people can be involved beyond the exhibition? Are there any activists or organizations that have inspired you either before or during its course?
I wouldn’t be the person to know the answer to that. Like I said above, I try to make all my work worthwhile and worth being made, with a purpose and point to them. With something to say. I’m just glad that there are organizations like [Manifest Justice] that are fighting the fight and bringing people together for good causes.
Can you talk a bit about the piece you’ve submitted for the Manifest Justice exhibition and what drew you towards its creation?
My work in the show at Manifest Justice is actually from a series I painted more than a decade ago, called “Prisonation.” For that project I visited every one of California’s 33 state prisons and painted a picture of them. [See Above, “Twilight Over San Quentin.”] The idea was about the changes that California has gone through over its 150 years – from being seen in the 1850’s as an American Eden, where you could go west and dig gold out of the ground and eat the oranges from the trees and it was always sunny and warm and you could strike it rich, to becoming the most incarcerated population on Earth. It’s shocking. And the more you learn about prisons the more nasty it all becomes. So, like a lot of my projects, it began as something that I was interested in and want to learn more about, and evolved into a huge project that took three years and became some 35 paintings. My work tends to do that – begin with an inkling of an idea and then become a massive project, hopefully one that was worthwhile in creating.
Manifest Justice is on display from May 1 to May 10th in Los Angeles. Click here for more details.