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Please note the house will be temporarily closed for 4 weeks from 14 March 2024

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Open: Tuesday–Sunday, 11am–5pm

We are closed on Bank Holiday Mondays

Please note the house will be temporarily closed for 4 weeks from 14 March 2024

Stories

Get to Know Exhibition Artist Issam Kourbaj

Find out more about Issam Kourbaj, the artist at the centre of our exhibition Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive.

Issam Kourbaj was born in Suweida, southern Syria in 1963. His early childhood was spent helping his family, listening to their stories and harvesting the natural produce of the surrounding landscape. Kourbaj became an assistant calligrapher at age 11. Under the guidance of his brother, he gained his first customer at 12 years old, sign-writing for the local barber’s shop in return for a free haircut. At 14, his art teacher told him about the Centre of Fine Arts of Suweida, where the students let him come along on their painting expeditions, and Kourbaj began to paint.

Photo by Thierry Bal
Issam Kourbaj, Handmade arabic letter stamps. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy the artist.

After his school years, Kourbaj attended the Fine Art Institute of Damascus, where he developed his practice in painting and calligraphy before graduating in 1984, with the highest mark of his year. Not long after, to avoid conscription into the Syrian army, Kourbaj moved to the Repin Fine Art Institute in St Petersburg, Russia. Kourbaj was the first foreign student to enrol in their Architecture Department since it was founded in 1757. In 1989, Kourbaj travelled to the UK for the first time to visit a distant cousin who worked in a restaurant in Cambridge. Here he met other artists and was immediately offered to be included in a group exhibition with artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Elisabeth Frink. The following year, Kourbaj was offered his first solo show at Ganz Gallery in Cambridge, which led to a teaching position at a private arts college where he taught drawing despite not being able to speak English.

I was not afraid to knock on doors. I wanted to know what was behind these doors. I had many many many rejections in my life, too many to list – but I continued to persist. If I had stayed in Syria, I don’t know what I would’ve become, I could not have sculpted myself in the way that I had wanted.

— ISSAM KOURBAJ

In 2011, Kourbaj’s home country of Syria became the site of civil war when the government responded violently to peaceful protests against the high levels of unemployment, government corruption and lack of political freedom. Since 2011, at least 11 million Syrians have fled their homes in response to the conflict. This has strongly informed the work of Kourbaj, which has been responding to the conflict since its beginning, particularly how it’s affected the cultural heritage. In 2020, the BBC revisited its series A History of the World in 100 Objects, to add Kourbaj’s work Dark Water, Burning World. His work has also been featured in exhibitions such as Movement of the People at the Art Exchange Gallery and Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq at the University of Pennsylvania.

c. late 1980s; Issam Kourbaj surrounded by onlookers while drawing a portrait in St Petersburg.

My work is a quiet gesture, an archive to remember those who have been forgotten, and an invitation to ponder what the future might bring to what’s left of my people and of my country.

— ISSAM KOURBAJ
Photo by David L Hone, 2018

Kourbaj has worked with Kettle’s Yard previously. His work Unearthed (In Memoriam) was exhibited in St Peter’s Church in 2014, and he was one of 38 artists included in our 2018 exhibition Actions. The image of the world can be different (part 1).

This new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard features key works from the last 10 years, and also new works which explore ideas of loss, memory and renewal. Come along to learn more about the artist and experience his artwork.

Find out more about Issam Kourbaj here.