'It's not easy but my job is to bring the destruction of Syria into the art studio'

Issam Kourbaj speaks about his quest to stop the world from washing its hands of - or turning a blind eye to - his stricken birthplace

Arab Showcase - Issam Koubraj

Arab Showcase - Issam Koubraj
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Artists cannot escape from translating or bringing what's happening around them in the world into their studios. That is regardless of what form of art: sculpture, poetry or a dance.

The role of the artist is to respond, but this is half of the story. From my perspective, the artist brings the outside world in but, equally, the outside world has the right to respond or not to this creation.

What I notice is that because I am working with materials that speak to many people - because it's a found and familiar object, because the agency of the material is in itself very powerful - people respond to my work very well. They make their own poetry out of it easily.

To bring the news into the studio is not an easy thing… especially when you see the destruction of your homeland. You will say: ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘How could anyone comprehend it?’

Not only to comprehend it as a person, but as an artist. How could one distil these pieces of information and bring something for others to appreciate? I know people who cannot hear the news any more; we have to turn our heads away because it's too much.

It took me two years to find the material that speaks to the Syrian tragedy. Because of the enormity of it, you cannot afford to do something quick. I was really delighted that I didn't rush because rushing is just not the nature of my work. I don't like quick consumption. I like slow consumption - my making of it as well as inviting others to appreciate it.

I have two pieces currently on display, although both are in lockdown. The one at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a mouthful of a title. It is called Don't Wash Your Hands: Neither Light Agrees to Enter the Eyes Nor Air to the Lungs.

It is made out of Aleppo soap and it's all to do with what's happening in the lockdown and in Syria.

We are daily bombarded with this amount of information that we really need to wash our hands. I have no problem with that.

I am washing my hands, but I think there is another metaphor to do with washing your hands. In this case, of not washing your hands of something that is as magnificent and significant as Syria because there is so much happening that shouldn't happen. My job as an artist is to keep raising awareness of this ancient civilisation that is being destroyed on a daily basis.

I did this piece using some artefacts at the Fitzwilliam. Quite old ones from the Eye Temple at Tell Brak in the north-east of Syria. When I saw them, I thought that they have this kind of presence but that the presence speaks of absence because of their magnified eyes. So I decided to sculpt them blindfolded.

I made an installation of 366 of them. It was a leap year in 2020; I put the three original Fitzwilliam Museum pieces with them; it's three leap years since the Syrian crisis began. This is where the number’s significance comes from.

Another piece that's going to be on show very soon, although it's in the permanent collection of The British Museum, is called Dark Water, Burning World. It is a small collection of boats made out of mudguards, with many matchsticks, burnt matchsticks.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj. Courtesy Issam Kourbaj
Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj. Courtesy Issam Kourbaj

As an artist, you always try to merge the material and the idea and the context, the space you're showing things. Material has agency and that agency I'm really interested in more and more in my latest work. The boats were inspired by small model ships in the Fitzwilliam Museum and the original ones were made out of lead.

I thought: ‘Lead, it will sink. If I make my boats out of lead, it will deliver the thoughts far too fast’, and I didn't want that kind of fast delivery.

So I was locking my bike, and the word mudguard spoke to me. The idea that it’s something protecting you from the mud. I thought that to make these boats out of mudguards would be really very important.

But, of course, what to put in these boats? I thought that a burnt match would deliver a powerful metaphor of the extinct light. It's the absence of light, the darkness, the trauma. And the matchstick has a meaning in itself; when you see them together, they have a human scale. Having that kind of modest material, they started speaking of the trauma carried by the “people of the boat”.

'Another Day Lost', an installation of recycled books and medical boxes housed inside a UNHCR tent, resembles a miniature model of a refugee camp. Courtesy Shubbak
'Another Day Lost', an installation of recycled books and medical boxes housed inside a UNHCR tent, resembles a miniature model of a refugee camp. Courtesy Shubbak

For Another Day Lost, I made an installation out of recycled books and medical boxes. It's almost like a miniature model of a refugee camp, surrounded by burnt matches. The amount of matches counts the days since the Syrian uprising. Every day of this installation, I burnt one match and added it.

It started in five locations in London - reflecting the five refugee camps around Syria - and a war ship in the Thames [staged aboard the HQS Wellington], and then I took it to New York twice, Cambridge, Dubai, Budapest.

The magic about this installation is that it looks like a refugee camp, but when you come close to it, because of the books and images, suddenly there is this poetry.

The books I was using related to home, to migration, to nests, to tanks so the images, without me intending it, started to speak of a new layer. And the travelling to different locations; it was being a migrant.

The most regretful element in my life is that I cannot physically exhibit in Syria

Now it is sitting in a box in my storage. It was 12 editions. I felt that it really raised its voice nicely; it told its story. Of course, if I could find somewhere that people could see it in real life, fine. But at least we have this place now called the "virtual space" online. People see images of it.

I feel very proud that my work is speaking to people locally, nationally and internationally. It is being collected by different museums. The latest one is the Pergamon in Berlin. I feel that the message of this work does not represent just me - it represents me, it represents my family, it represents my friends and the many voiceless in Syria. That is, I feel that the message I was given is embedded in the work.

The most regretful element of my life is that I cannot physically exhibit it in Syria. I would like to connect with my friends there but unfortunately I cannot. It's difficult to guess what kind of reactions there would be, but art is always a very powerful tool in the time of darkness.

- As told to Jacqueline Fuller

* To mark the 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, sparked by teenage graffiti, Issam Kourbaj will hold ‘Imploded, Burnt, Turned to Ash’, 2021, at the Howard Theatre, Cambridge, a live-streamed drawing and sound performance with composer Richard Causton and soprano Jessica Summers, on March 15 at 5pm GMT.

* The Royal Drawing School continues its series of online dialogues between artists, curators and writers with ‘Between Art and Poetry: poet Ruth Padel and artist Issam Kourbaj in conversation with Claudia Tobin’ on March 17 at 7pm GMT.

* ‘Fleeing the Dark: an Intervention by Issam Kourbaj’ begins at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, on April 30.