For more than twenty years, Muslim revert Kenny Irwin Jr.’s Robolights display has been a fixture of Christmas in Southern California.
All images via Kenny Irwin Jr.
On a late autumn day as perfect as most are in Palm Springs—mid-70s, cloudless cobalt sky—the proprietor of the country’s largest residential holiday light display balances on a ladder eight feet off the ground, putting the finishing touches on one of his titanic seasonal tableaux.
With a cordless power drill, Kenny Irwin Jr. drives industrial screws and washers through the thighs of a pair of disembodied mannequin legs, affixing them to a fifteen-foot-tall, Godzilla-shaped robot made of spray-paint cans, circuit boards, strappy women’s shoes, and multi-outlet power strips, all topped with the grinning, gap-toothed head of the Disney dog Goofy.
A 40-year-old Palm Springs native, Kenny has been making his mutant found-object sculptures for more than two decades. The oldest, an ink-black Megatron assembled with screws, glue, and scrap wood when he was a teenager, still looms fifty feet above the swimming pool on the far side of the yard.
Having learned the hard way that the snags and exertions involved in constructing such behemoths can be punishing on even the sturdiest clothing, he now works shirtless, in sandals, with hiking pants pulled up to his rib cage. His beard hangs down past his collarbone and a ponytail drapes to his shoulders. He has the kind of brawn not chased at the gym but earned through twelve-hour days spent building with materials including car parts, heavy-duty cable, and boxy old computer monitors.
When Kenny leans back to assess his work from atop the ladder, the two mannequin legs stick out, T-Rex-like, from the torso of the giant Goofy-Godzillabot. Like all of his sculptures, it may look improvised, but his vision of the final product existed before he began. All that remains now is for it to be cleaned, painted, and lit by the galaxy of LEDs that regularly transforms his four-acre backyard into the arabesque and alien-obsessed roadside attraction known as Robolights.
Begun with a few strings of lights in 1986, Robolights has become a fixture of December in Southern California. Beloved by local media, it also received the New York Times “Home and Garden” treatment last year, and in 2010 even led Kenny to design a Robo-Santa stage set for Conan.
“People sometimes call it a Christmas light display, but it’s really not,” Kenny says, grinning wide. “I don’t even celebrate Christmas! I’m just trying to shine a little light into the world. Instead of cursing the darkness, light the darkness up one light at a time.”
As one might expect from a man who owns more than 8 million plastic bulbs attached to miles of rubber cording, Kenny has a lot to say about light. He can speak with authority about the amps involved in putting on his display, and he knows that since he switched from incandescents to LEDs a few years ago, he can safely run forty strings of lights together from a single source, instead of only four or five. Yet one word he often uses to discuss light will not be found in any electrician’s handbook: nur.
“I call it a celebration of nur,” he says of Robolights. “A celebration of the fact that God not only created the universe, he shone light into it.”
Despite the gospel echo of light shining in the darkness, Kenny’s inspiration does not come from the Catholicism in which he was raised, but from the Muslim faith he embraced as an adult. The original expression of the Islamic concept of divine illumination can be found in the thirty-fifth verse of the twenty-fourth sura of the Quran, commonly known as the Light Verse, or the Ayat an-Nur. “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,” the verse begins.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp,
the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star,
lit from a blessed olive tree.
There are no olive trees in Kenny’s backyard, but plenty of citrus and fan palms grow around and through the mammoth robots. Elsewhere in Palm Springs, palm trees arc gracefully over the entrances of gated estates as though money can buy even the plant world’s acquiescence; here they emerge from pink and white towers of recycled trash in explosions of leafy green. Landscapes adapt; they make way for the new by means that seem impossible until they’re commonplace.
From the roof of Kenny’s house, one sees a world he first encountered in his dreams: alien Santas riding on sleighs pulled by reindeer with bristling hides made of hundreds of Bic pens; a North Pole village whose highest point is a candy-colored minaret; a gingerbread giant wearing a Pashtun turban; more than two hundred robots at war and at play with the symbols and detritus of the quintessential holiday of American excess: bicycles and baby dolls, toy guns and Tonka trucks, melted iPhones and power tools, a menagerie of discarded possessions put to strange new use. Out by the road, there’s a Nativity scene with Baby Jesus sleeping in a microwave manger, while on a wall nearby, at eye-level with Goofy, Arabic script spells out the opening words of the Quran: Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.
As goes Robolights, so goes the nation. The evolving place of Islam in America is often approached through the stories of individuals and assimilation: an imam in New York struggling to lead his community in the wake of 9/11; a New Jersey teen weighing the pros and cons of covering her hair. Yet maybe we’ll know that Muslims have been finally and fully accepted in the United States when their faith is no longer seen as a walled-off immigrant religion, but instead is subject to the same spin toward the bizarre that this country puts on every permutation of belief. Just as the gonzo “Paradise Garden” of Baptist minister and outsider artist Howard Finster might be seen as an illustration of how far American Christianity has traveled from its European roots, Kenny and his backyard full of aliens, robots, Quranic verses, and Christmas lights might say something about the current state of Islam in America, and what it might become.
As the Ayat an-Nur puts it, “Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes.”
Is there is any place in America more unlikely than Palm Springs?
Look down on it from the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, and the line that separates the surrounding desert from this oasis of a resort city is as clear as a horizon. For hundreds of miles there is nothing but the grays and browns of an empty region that includes the eight hundred thousand acres of the Joshua Tree National Park. Then, like the flip of a switch, an Oz of golf courses taunts the monochrome world around it. Much of this oasis is divided into a neat grid of avenues leading to high-walled compounds, every one a further triumph of color: green grass that never fades, blue pools open year round, yellow sports cars in driveways behind Emerald City-sized gates.
As any local will tell you, the source of this lush landscape is the Coachella Valley aquifer, the vast life-sustaining basin hidden a thousand feet below the arid earth. “Were it not for the aquifer,” the region’s water management authority explains, “Coachella Valley would have stayed raw desert, suitable only for a few drought-tolerant animals and plants.” The remnant of an Ice Age lake that once filled the valley is now groundwater pumped to the surface to make Palm Spring’s golf courses and swimming pools possible.
Kenny’s conversion to Islam might be similarly explained. Periodically throughout history, he tells me, Allah has brought Islam to places where there were no Muslims. Because God willed it, new followers of the Prophet Muhammad simply emerged on the scene like water rising up to let life bloom where there had been only rocks.
Before I met him I wondered if this might be performance or shtick, but Kenny is nothing if not sincere, in both his faith and his art.
“There’s an idea in Islam,” he says, “that Allah instills hadiya”—a gift—“in people where Islam has never been before. God made a way for me to be exposed to Islam, and to accept it.”
When not working, Kenny presents himself to the world like a well-dressed madrasa student. He has his salwar kameez tunics made for him by a tailor in Rajasthan, to whom he sends embroidery designs for the sleeves. Before I met him I wondered if this might be performance or shtick, but Kenny is nothing if not sincere, in both his faith and his art. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2010—an unlikely culmination of a journey begun in art school.
“I didn’t even know the existence of Islam until I went to college,” Kenny says. “It was never taught in elementary school or high school.” Then he enrolled in the California College of the Arts in Oakland. “I was taking an art history course; everything was always about the Renaissance, but for a day or two they finally started talking about the Golden Age of Islam. I was extremely impressed by a religion that could unify all these different people and allow them to make great advances at a time when so many were living in the Dark Ages.”
Kenny traces his earliest accidental encounter with his adopted faith to recordings of qawwali singers his father brought home when he was seven years old, which seemed to be a music connected to a place he had already visited in his dreams. He had never met any Muslims, but the more he learned about their beliefs, the more he felt he had known the tenets of Islam all along.
“The simplicity of the faith: one God, no intermediaries; this is what I believed in my whole life,” he says. “What they taught me in Catholic school, about all the saints, and the trifecta, or whatever they call it: it didn’t make any sense to me. When I would ask questions they never had answers, and that only left me with more questions. All I knew was what I believed in my heart: that there’s only one God and all his messengers were prophets. The Islamic influences in my art, the shapes, the architecture—I had been dreaming about those things all my life.”
It’s possible that he was exposed to a few of those influences without realizing it, as the history of Islam in greater Palm Springs is much older than Kenny or his Robolights.
Roughly one hundred years ago, some intrepid agricultural entrepreneurs began importing date trees from Iraq and Egypt to the Coachella Valley, and launched a remarkable marketing plan to remake this swath of California desert in the image of the exotic world they hoped the fruit might bring to mind. Farming towns with names like Arabia and Mecca sprang up as developers filled the outskirts of Palm Springs with ersatz Middle Eastern flourishes—pyramids, Bedouin tents, and state utility buildings with mosque-like domes. A local high school even changed the name of its sports teams to “The Arabs.” (Earlier this year, after complaints about the cultural insensitivity of their plainly racist mascot, the name was amended to “The Mighty Arabs”; the younger kids in town have long been affectionately called “Lil Arabs” without apparent protest.)
A funny thing happened on the way to the Queen Scheherazade Pageant: actual Muslims began to arrive in the Coachella Valley.
As the historian Sarah McCormick Seekatz writes, “Had you visited the Coachella Valley in 1950 you may have been served by a waitress dressed like a harem girl, seen a film in the Aladdin Theater, presented your money to a bank teller in a fez, or seen women’s clubs meet entirely in costume.” This tradition continues today in the form of the National Date Festival in nearby Indio, where camel races have joined the local rodeo and teenage girls don “traditional Arabian costumes” and compete to be named this year’s Queen Scheherazade beneath a kitsch minaret on the Magic Carpet Stage. In years past, Seekatz notes, the crowning of the queen was greeted with an adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, blaring from loudspeakers around the fairgrounds.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the Queen Scheherazade Pageant: actual Muslims began to arrive in the Coachella Valley. Few came at first; they worked quietly, cultivating the same fruit they had grown at home. Soon there were enough to be considered a community. The Muslim population now numbers in the thousands; not just immigrants drawn from the places where the valley’s quarter-million date palms originated, but converts like Kenny—most of whom prefer the term “revert,” because they believe that Muslim is what they were always meant to be.
That the symbols of a faith first brought cynically to the region as a gimmick to attract tourists would emerge in earnest in the most popular holiday attraction in Palm Springs was not inevitable. But it does raise the possibility that the religious implications of even the campiest cultural appropriation may prove more significant than they seem.
Five days before opening night on Thanksgiving—on the very day, as it happens, when the National Date Festival names a new Queen Scheherazade in Indio—Kenny races from one robot to the next, sanding, sawing, and building while a team of painters struggles to keep up. Since his last public display in 2012, he has added between two and three hundred tons of art (Kenny often speaks of art by the ton), and for the first time ever he has been forced to hire a small army of help. The helper who has been with him the longest, a young man named Ishmael, might on any given day be asked to hang ten thousand LEDs, assemble a dozen bird houses, and act as a translator to convey Kenny’s quite detailed instructions to the mostly Spanish-speaking crew. As Ishmael puts it with an air of resignation, “Kenny makes everything out of everything.”
“The workers are sometimes surprised how fast I can make art,” Kenny says.
Among his latest creations is a Babel Tower of wrapped holiday presents, each with a bow made of repurposed speaker components. The pink, red, green, yellow, and orange gifts are piled atop Big Wheels and acoustic guitars, with a rocking horse near the peak. It’s like a lifetime of Christmas mornings gathered to build a bonfire that could be seen from orbit.
The holiday traditions once evident within the Irwin home have likewise been heaped together with other influences, both the Islam Kenny formally embraced with a recitation of the shahada at the age of thirty-two, and the fascination with robots and aliens that provided his first true catechism. Inside the cluttered Spanish-style house he shares with his father, inspirational Christian cards and wall hangings are crowded out by Kenny’s massive ballpoint-pen drawings of imagined Islamic landscapes. A statue of Saint Francis of Assisi helping Jesus down from the cross sits on the dining room table beside a translucent sculpture of an alien fetus floating in a jar.
Kenny’s father, Ken Irwin Sr., an 84-year-old real estate developer who designed and built this house along with large swaths of Palm Springs in its glory days (and who now finances Robolights at a cost of more than $100,000 a year), tells me his son has long been a seeker of truth both in space and in the spirit realm.
“He’s always been basically spiritual,” his father says. “Sometimes it seemed like he was from another world, like he’d been kidnapped by space travelers. He would dream of places thousands of miles away, and then draw them.” Along with this dreamed connection to distant realities came an enduring desire to visit them in waking life. “If he could, he’d jump into the first spaceship up.”
For Kenny, this is only a logical extension of his beliefs. “Allah is the Lord of the worlds—plural, not just singular,” he tells me. “It’s stipulated time and time again in the Quran about life other than humans. God not only created the malaikah, the beings of light that many people commonly refer to as the angels, but he created the djinn, which were the predecessors to humans made of clay; the djinn are made of smokeless fire, and of course smokeless fire is the fourth state of matter, it’s plasma. The djinn can see us, but we can’t see them. They co-occupy our world, and if they co-occupy our world, they probably co-occupy other worlds as well.”
In Kenny’s reading, the Quran also makes it clear that there is life on other planets, and in this interpretation he insists he is not alone. “There was a research poll of how many believers in different religions believed in extraterrestrial life,” he says, “and Muslims were much more likely to believe than Christians and Jews. In Islam, we’re just one of many parts of Allah’s creation. We don’t know what’s out there.”
Of course, Kenny is not the first to blend ideas about Allah and alien life.
There is a possibility, he suggests, that when the Quran mentions the nations of Gog and Magog “who do great mischief on the earth,” it is a reference to two alien worlds connected to our own by a wormhole; only an iron wall built by a righteous leader keeps them from returning to do mischief again.
Of course, Kenny is not the first to blend ideas about Allah and alien life. Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad regularly spoke of the wheel in the sky seen by the biblical prophet Ezekiel as a “mystery Wheel” flying above America, “guided especially by the desire of God Almighty.” In a later description of this sky wheel sent in the service of Islam, the Nation’s current leader, Louis Farrakhan, made clear that he has spaceships in mind. “White people call them unidentified flying objects (UFOs),” he has said. Earlier this year, Farrakhan called upon President Obama to open up Roswell. “Summon the scientists from all over the world to America under your auspices, and you go with them,” he advised Obama. “And look at what Allah sent to you, and study it.” Whatever there is to be seen at Area 51, he explained, “was like a man coming to you, giving you his card, giving you his address and telephone number, and saying, ‘If you’d like to reach me, just call me. I’m sending you a wheel, a few of them, as my calling card.’”
Yet whereas the Nation’s use of UFO imagery is apocalyptic (the wheel, Elijah Mohammad said, was made for military purposes, to do battle with the enemies of Allah), Kenny’s alien-inflected, Islamic-influenced art is, he says, “futuristic and optimistic.” Even his works that depict violence are playful: a collection of Photoshop and hand-drawn images he calls “Pakistani Starfleet Explorers,” for example, depicts a futuristic Karachi where monstrous intergalactic pigeons battle hijab-wearing women firing laser cannons.
This distinction surely has something to do with the very different motivations behind the Nation of Islam and Robolights. While the movement of Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan was born of justified rage against centuries of slavery and brutality at the hands of white America, and a desire to reclaim spiritual traditions lost during that time, Kenny embraced Islam for the far less fraught reason that it brought him a sense of personal peace and belonging he had not found elsewhere.
“I share plenty in common with other Muslims,” he says. “With other artists I try to share things in common, but I’ve had difficulty.” In art school his classmates didn’t seem to like him, he remembers, but he’s never had that problem in the mosque. “That’s the beauty of the ummah”—the Islamic community—“the inclusiveness of it, the strong brotherly love among the other Muslims.”
Having dreamed of finding a place to belong on other worlds, Kenny found one closer to home.
During the final push to open Robolights for the holiday season, Kenny takes exactly two breaks. For the first, he goes with his father to see Interstellar. For the second, he travels not through a wormhole but on Highway 10, speeding along in his Toyota Land Cruiser to make it to the Coachella masjid on time for jummah, Friday prayers.
Masjid Ibrahim, the mosque of the Islamic Society of Coachella Valley, is a forty-five-minute drive from the Irwin home. Including the service, the round trip will take more than three hours, which feels like quite a lot of time considering how much work remains to be done. Kenny still needs to build a support for the fifty-foot inflatable Santa that will stand on the roof, and he is troubled that he spent a full day on another inflatable—a spinning “Happy Holidays” carousel—that should have taken just a few minutes. He needs to reground himself, he says, and the five daily required prayers of salat allow him to focus on something other than his work.
“I live and breath art practically every waking moment of my life,” he says. “The only times when I do not is in salat or in jummah. When you’re in salat, you aren’t thinking about worldly things.”
Given the distance, Kenny can only visit the Islamic Center once a week. At other salat times, he prays by himself at home, either inside his room or out among the robots. (“The whole world is a masjid,” he says.) It would be more convenient if there was a mosque nearby, and he has recently begun an effort—complete with a handmade 3-D model—to build one in downtown Palm Springs, just a mile from Robolights. As he wrote on the initiative’s Facebook page, “Why build a masjid in the center of town? I say why not build a masjid in the center of town.”
Until then, he will continue to make the weekly pilgrimage, often giving a lift to other Palm Springs Muslims. Today he swings by the public library to pick up Sister Alisa, a young mother raised in the Nation of Islam who later adopted orthodox Sunni practice, and Brother Malik, a friendly older gentleman who became a Muslim in his fifties. Brother Malik has brought along with him a printout of an Islamic advice column considering the propriety of Muslims taking part in non-Muslim celebrations.
“Can I celebrate Thanksgiving with my parents?” he reads aloud. “I converted a few years back and it is very important to them. Things haven’t been great since my reversion. What are your thoughts?”
The discussion that follows concerns what it means for Muslims to take part in secular holidays, but it could also be about Robolights. Some Islamic authorities maintain that participation in actions that might be seen as imitating the religious rites of others is forbidden. Kenny, however, believes that neither gathering with family on Thanksgiving nor hanging holiday lights are necessarily imitations. “What matters to Muslims is nia, intention. What do you hope to accomplish through your actions?” In his life and his art, he says, he hopes to spread dawah, an invitation to his faith.
The parking lot at the masjid is more full than usual—a consequence, Malik suggests, of a recent attack on the mosque. At 5 a.m. on a Tuesday earlier in the month, while four people were inside the low-slung former church for the first salat of the day, five shots were fired, striking the main entrance and a car parked out front. The front door has now been reinforced with a thick steel plate. Coachella police are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.
Among Muslims, Kenny is known as Hassan, which, he admits with laugh, means handsome. He takes his place among perhaps forty men; there are also ten or so women in the building, but they pray behind a wall, out of sight. Six or seven children too young for school wander through the rows of men at prayer. A little boy in a red sweater with leather elbow patches clutches a Spiderman DVD like a security blanket. With his free hand, he presses two fingers into his palm and shoots imaginary webs at a curly-haired girl in a blue Avengers t-shirt.
For the moment, Kenny doesn’t worry about the aliens that still need painting, the inflatables that keep losing air.
Up front, beside a sign reading, “Please turn off cell phones, keep connection with Allah,” an imam speaks passionately in Arabic, which many of his congregants cannot understand. “All the reverts will tell you the same thing,” Kenny says. When your Arabic is limited to the words recited in prayer, “your mind wanders, but you still get the benefit for being there.”
When the sermon is over, it’s time to pray. The men rise as one and organize themselves into neat rows, all facing the mihrab, which indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, the geographic focal point of their prayer.
During salat Kenny’s intentions range from wellness for his family to the end of the war in Syria. For the moment, he doesn’t worry about the aliens that still need painting, the inflatables that keep losing air, or the thousands who will soon descend on his home.
“Al-lah. Al-lah. Al-lah,” the imam intones.
Kenny falls forward with the others, forty foreheads to the floor, backs to the ceiling. The sudden movement leaves the curly-haired girl in blue standing above them all, like a tiny boat made visible on the ocean by rolling to the top of a swell. On her Avengers t-shirt, Ironman glowers with blue-white lasers emitting from his titanium hands and eyes.
If Kenny is one face of the future of Islam in America, she is another. Will she keep the faith, or keep her curly hair uncovered? Will she continue to wander freely, or will she find her place behind the wall where the women pray? The answer will likely be found in the ongoing mash-up of piety and pop culture negotiated by every religious tradition in the United States. Perhaps she’ll decide to study art or robotics after a visit to a holiday light show in Palm Springs. Maybe she’ll grow up to be the Coachella Valley’s first Muslim Queen Scheherazade.
At the end of jummah, Kenny and the men he now calls his brothers chat about the shooting while snacking from a box of dates set on a table by the door.
A few days later, Robolights opens its six-week run to great success. Nearly a thousand come to see the display on the first night, and a spot on the local CBS news praises Kenny for “shining light on local charities” through a Christmas toy drive and a benefit for an anti-bullying organization. Nothing is said about the divine illumination of nur, the invitation to the faith known as dawah, or the unexpected beliefs behind the robots, but a front page story in the Palm Springs Desert Sun does capture something of the nia, intention, that sparked every LED to life: “One Light at a Time,” the headline says.
Relieved and elated by the response, Kenny remains eager to give credit to what he sees as the ultimate source of his work.
“In Islam, God is the grandest artist of them all, the artist that created the whole universe and whatever else is out there,” he says. “I am just another stroke of his creation.”
Peter Manseau is the author of books including the forthcoming One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History. Support for this story was provided by the Social Science Research Council through funding from the John Templeton Foundation.
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