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Issam Kourbaj

Issam Kourbaj was born in Syria and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts & Architecture in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and at Wimbledon School of Art. He has lived in Cambridge, UK, since 1990.

Since 2011 his artwork has related to the Syrian Crisis and reflects on the suffering of his fellow Syrians and the destruction of his cultural heritage.

His work has been widely exhibited and collected, and most recently it was featured in several museums and galleries around the world: Fitzwilliam Museum, Classical Archaeology Museum, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; British Museum and V&A, London; Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; Penn Museum, Philadelphia, Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Venice Biennale and the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.

His Dark Water, Burning World is in the permanent collection of the Pergamon Museum and the British Museum. For the BBC’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects,’ Neil MacGregor (the former Director of the British Museum) chose Dark Water, Burning World as the 101st object.

Issam Kourbaj in his studio. Photo: Mourad Kourbaj

Exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard

Art To Go: Make What Matters with Issam Kourbaj

In this online family workshop, Issam Kourbaj asks you to think about what you would take from your home with you if you were leaving in an emergency.

Imploded, burnt, turned to ash (2021)

This performance by the Syrian-born and Cambridge- based artist Issam Kourbaj marked the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising – a crisis that resulted in violent armed conflict and ongoing civil war. Kourbaj’s performance took place on the 15 March, the first day of the unrest a decade ago. The artist describes his project in his own words below:

“To mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which was sparked by teenage graffiti in March 2011, this drawing performance will pay homage to those young people who dared to speak their mind, the masses who protested publicly, as well as the many Syrian eyes that were, in the last ten years, burnt and brutally closed forever.

I will draw fragments of Arabic words and eye idols ona large surface in layers, repeating and obscuring them beyond all legibility and recognition. It will become a palimpsest of these two elements, the first is inspired by the graffiti that was quickly erased even before it was completed, and the second is based on three Syrian eye idols from the collections of The Fitzwilliam Museum, made of alabaster and dating to around 3200 BC, excavated at Tell Brak, Syria, in a building now called the Eye Temple.

I will then burn the final drawing and place the remaining ash in a glass box. Ideally, this will be exhibited in a sacred space to memorialise every victim of the last decade, while also being dedicated to all Syrians lost, displaced and still suffering from this ongoing crisis.

Towards the end of the performance, the viewer will hear words written by myself, set to music by renowned composer Richard Causton (Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge) and sung by soprano Jessica Summers.”

Three Questions to Issam Kourbaj

During Covid-19 we spoke to artists about what they were thinking and doing during this period. Watch artist Issam Kourbaj’s response, filmed in his studio in Cambridge, England.