Artist Issam Kourbaj talks about his latest work inspired by his Syrian homeland

Kourbaj has recreated the sprawling Syrian refugee camps in miniature for his latest expressive work being shown at the Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab arts and culture in London.

Issam Kourbaj’s Another Day Lost installation at 10 Golbourne Road, west London. Courtesy Issam Kourbaj
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In five unique sites across London this month, miniature models of Syrian refugee camps – made from scraps of old books, maps, diaries and musical scores and ringed by a fence of burnt matches – have been calling attention to the humanitarian crisis brought on by the chaos of civil war. The artist behind Another Day Lost, Issam Kourbaj, grew up in the Druze mountains in south-west Syria, and his most recent work has been shaped by the pain he feels at his country's catastrophic collapse.

“It’s my people, my culture, my language,” he says.

Kourbaj left Syria to study in 1985 and has not returned for many years, even before the outbreak of the violence. His latest work, which is being shown as part of the Shubbak Festival of Arab culture in London, is inspired by aerial images of refugee populations and by imagining what it must be like to live in a city of thousands of identical, anonymous units.

Visiting a camp would have given the work a different perspective, he says, but it might have been overwhelming. “I don’t know if emotionally I could be strong. It’s difficult to accept that I cannot return to the places where I left them. This is painful for me. Probably this [artwork] is another form of me realising, if you like, my own identity. Because for the last three years this is what I’m doing. In my landscape there is nothing but Syria.”

Another Day Lost began life nine months ago, Kourbaj says, when he started rescuing old books from skips, ripping them apart and painting black lines and Arabic script across them. The pages that became miniature "tents" contain references to themes such as migration, home, cooking and childhood. The empty pub, warehouse, churches and cultural centre chosen to house the installations correspond to the geographic positions of refugee populations outside Syria's borders in Turkey, Jordan, Leba­non and Iraqi Kurdistan. The number of matches surrounding them represents a tally of the days that have passed since the start of the crisis. Kourbaj describes this image as "like a rope around someone's neck, growing", and says that the refugees are becoming "citizens of the tents".

Kourbaj has lived in the university city of Cambridge for the past 25 years, but many of his family members and friends never left Syria. “Many of them died,” he says, “many of them are in prison and many of them are just surviving from one day to another, with the lack of everything except fear.

“Of course they are in my mind, but how to survive this and to create something out of it? I cannot go and fight. I don’t believe in guns. This is what I believe in. As far as I can do that, I feel much healthier.”

Kourbaj’s artistic journey from the mountains of his birth is a remarkable one: his parents were illiterate but at the age of about 8, he began helping an older brother who worked as a calligraphic sign-painter, and his teachers would ask him to illustrate diagrams for the class. With his family’s encouragement, he went on to study art in Damascus, where his teachers included the Syrian modernist Fateh Al Moudarres, and then in Leningrad, after a display of his work at the Soviet Cultural Centre earned him a scholarship.

Once in Russia, he soaked up constructivism and the atmosphere of social change. “While Gorbachev was doing his perestroika,” he says, “I was doing mine – learning a new culture, a new language – and from there, when things started to collapse, I went westward.”

Kourbaj embarked on a course of study in theatre design and scenography at Wimbledon School of Art in London, before moving to Cambridge; he is currently teaching at Christ’s College. Despite this grounding, he says, he’s never shaken off the sense of being on the outside.

“The minute you are an insider,” he says, “you become predictable. I feel much freer if I don’t belong. I don’t want to have a stamp, [for people] to say: ‘Look, we know who you are’.”

The pain of conflict has been a recurring theme in the artist's work. His first major sale was a wall installation called Sound Palimpsest, which was created in response to the invasion of Iraq and bought by the British Museum in 2008. It is made up of recycled pages, overlaid with fragments of Arabic songs, scraps of graffiti and X-rays. "I'm really interested in layers of time, layers of history," he says. "We are all made out of these layers. And I am interested in the invisible. The palimpsest is to do with this invisible, archaeological, geological layer."

Kourbaj’s most recent work has sprung almost entirely from emotions stirred by his homeland. His past four solo exhibitions, in London, Cambridge and Kuwait, have involved damaged objects, including photograms of broken bones, an IV drip that acts as a water clock and a mangled tricycle, and the proceeds were donated to charities helping Syrian civilians.

The same is true of this new work in London, which will benefit Médecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which donated a refugee tent to house one of the five installations. This tent stands in the yard of St James’s, a 17th-century church in Piccadilly built by Christopher Wren, and will be returned to its intended use, sheltering a displaced family, after the Shubbak Festival ends tomorrow.

The church is a resonant setting for the installation, with its associations of refuge, history and religious ideology. Its rector, the Reverend Lucy Winkett, says that although the majority of those affected by Syria’s collapse are not Christian, she considers it her religious duty to support their cause.

“We want to stand in solidarity with people who are suffering,” she says, “and in a world where there’s a lot of misunderstandings between people of different faiths, it’s doubly important that we stand beside people who are suffering [who are] from a different faith.”

When I visited Kourbaj two days before the opening, he was almost finished with the last installation inside the tent, and was taking a break outside when a pigeon flew in, disrupting the delicate set-up. It was ushered out by his assistants but the artist talked to it fondly, calling it “sweetie pie” and pointing out that “there are lots of birds and wings” on the carefully folded scraps of paper inside: “It’s just coming to see its kind.”

Birds are absent from refugee camps, Kourbaj told me, remembering a documentary in which a resident of the Zaatari camp in Jordan said that around the makeshift city “‘there are no birds, there is no life, there are no trees.’ I found that a very powerful statement.”

When I asked him if Another Day Lost is intended to provoke shame or anger in Londoners – the ever-growing mound of spent matches, the fact that the numbers of Syrians granted refuge status in the UK has been tiny – he says that's not the case.

“I am frustrated myself, but this is not my job. I am not here to tell David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees. This is a tragedy that concerns all of us as humans, but my responsibility as an artist is to take the issue and digest it and make an art piece out of it.

“Somebody might come and take out of it something that I didn’t intend at all, and I really love that. Hopefully it’s not anger.”

Jess Holland is a regular contri­butor to The National.