Issam Kourbaj Kettle’s Yard And Heong Gallery Cambridge – Revd Jonathan Evens

Issam Kourbaj, Kettle's Yard

Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive at Kettle’s Yard, with its concurrent exhibition ‘You are not you, and home is not home’ at Heong Gallery, is the largest solo exhibition to date by Cambridge-based Issam Kourbaj. These concurrent exhibitions reveal the amazing fertility of Kourbaj’s imagination and the extent to which ritual informs his practice.

Although he has lived and worked in Cambridge since 1990, for the past 13 years, Kourbaj has been recording the conflict in his home country of Syria, where more than 14 million refugees have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Having last visited the country in 2007 and with travel now impossible, Kourbaj feels a strong responsibility to use his work as a tool to foreground the trauma and difficult conditions that the Syrian people continue to face. The exhibition also coincides with the 13th anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, which began in March 2011.
Like exiles and émigrés everywhere, Kourbaj has had to redefine ‘home’ for himself whenever he feels the old definitions shift. Home, in one conventional sense, is Cambridge, where, since 1990, Kourbaj has lived, practised, and raised a family. In Cambridge, he has also been artist-in-residence, a Bye-Fellow, and a lector in Art at Christ’s College.

For Kourbaj, however, home is also Syria: Suweida, where he was born, and Damascus, where he painted the city gates across the Barada river. Like millions of migrants, Kourbaj is always away from home; even when he is at home – there is always another place of belonging. In Kourbaj’s case, this other home – the first home – is lost behind the shroud of war. That is the meaning of the title – ‘You are not you and home is not home’ – of the Heong Gallery exhibition.

 Issam Kourbaj,
Issam Kourbaj, Dark Water, Burning World, 2016, Selection of small boats, made from recycled bicycle mud-guards, packed with upright burnt matches. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy the artist.

The title’ Urgent Archive’ gestures to the artist’s ongoing and often laborious work to record events in Syria from a distance. Over the past thirteen years of conflict in Syria, Kourbaj has marked time and recorded events through repetitive action, process and performance. Through the daily labour of making art, these works register the continuum of war and its transformations of the landscape and architecture of the region. Their repetitive nature and the fact that they often reflect the current length of the conflict means that they become daily rituals of remembrance for Kourbaj. Rituals are repeated sequences of symbolic activities, often involving gestures, words, actions or objects, where the practical aim of the activities has been replaced by the aim of communication.

In ‘Urgent Archive’, a new installation inspired by the active, generative space of the artist’s studio, draws together performance, video and experimental sculptural works into an active space of production and process. This combined display structure and workspace presents a wide range of objects, materials and videos to show the breadth of Kourbaj’s current practice. Much of the work has been created using found objects and materials that are gathered carefully scrutinised, and given new purpose. The works for this installation will continue to develop throughout the exhibition’s run, exploring the idea that, like the conflict in his homeland, Kourbaj’s work is continuous. In Week 1, they included dried Syrian wheat seeds, glass slides, dismantled cameras, stamped books, repurposed shoe soles removed, a deflated car tyre, and a crushed and twisted Arabic typewriter. These works demonstrate that anything and everything can form the grist in the mill of Kourbaj’s imagination, becoming art in the process.
These found works are inspired, in part, by the notion of survival and memories of family members who dismantled unexploded bombs in order to make domestic tools and cutlery. Today, Kourbaj employs his multifaceted daily practices involving repetitive, archival and ritualistic procedures, such as the collecting, ordering and reordering of found materials and images, to explore the potential of art to help us comprehend traumatic events on both historical and personal scales.

Issam Kourbaj
Issam Kourbaj, Urgent archives, written in blood, 2019. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy the artist.

Within this exhibition, seeds, in particular, are presented in a wide range of different ways: hundreds of date seeds have been stitched individually onto a canvas tent; powerful microscopes were used to examine Syrian wheat seeds that have been burned with the resulting images taking on the appearance of skin or parts of the body; Syrian wheat is being grown outside Kettle’s Yard where the artist will harvest it, milled and made into bread for the exhibition; a new video work documenting wheat growing in the form of a written poem by Mahmoud Darwish is included in ‘You are not you and home is not home’. For the artist, a seed is an archive because it is a repository of information, particularly as natural heritage and agricultural sites have become further victims of the war.

The Heong Gallery exhibition includes a selection of objects from Kourbaj’s series ‘Dark Water, Burning World’ – a fleet of tiny boats made from repurposed bicycle mudguards and filled with burnt matchsticks to suggest huddled refugees. Inspired by the miniature lead boats that carried goddesses from 4th-century BC Syria, which Kourbaj came across in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, former British Museum director Neil MacGregor has described the work as standing “for all migrants anywhere, driven by fear, guided by hope.”
The experience of migrants is powerfully conveyed in every aspect of this exhibition. ‘Keep them at bay’ is a contemporary comment on using the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ as an ‘accommodation barge’. Kourbaj stacks “rusting, upturned sardine tins stacked tightly on a wooden base” to, as Prerona Prasad explains, address “the British viewer, complicit in the ever-worsening standards of treatment afforded to asylum seekers” who are packed “like sardines, at double the capacity for which the vessel was intended”. ‘Precarious Passage’ is a 13-book sculpture (one for each year of the Syrian conflict) formed by copies of MacGregor’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ with holes in them and one of Kourbaj’s boats emerging from the final hole. He says that this “describes the journey we are all making in a fragile boat across the unpredictable ocean of time”.
As Andrew Nairne and Graham Virgo state in their joint Foreword to the catalogue, Kourbaj’s achievement is not simply his “remarkable artistic breadth” in creating work “so full of invention and purpose that its images and ideas reverberate well beyond the walls of any gallery” but his ability ‘to make us look, pause and imagine” that we might “consider our responsibility for the condition of others on our shared planet”.
Bonnie Greer notes that Kourbaj’s ‘Aleppo Soap’ “demands that you do not wash your hands of what is happening” and concludes:
“Here is the Urgent Archive… of our common humanity.
Let it do what it does to you.
Let it be what it is to you.”

‘Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive’, Kettle’s Yard, 2 March – 26 May 2024

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‘You are not you and home is not home’, Heong Gallery, 2 March – 26 May 2024

Visit Here

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