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Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. Photo by Jo Underhill

Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive

2 March – 26 May 2024, 11am – 5pm

Since 2011 Issam Kourbaj’s artwork has responded to the ongoing conflict in Syria, and reflects on the suffering of his fellow Syrians and the destruction of his cultural heritage. This exhibition presented key works from this period alongside a new series which explored themes of loss, memory and renewal.

This event has passed. FREE, come along

Inspired by a seed’s ability to sprout roots in new environments, Kourbaj grew Syrian wheat (donated by ICARDA) at Kettle’s Yard and Downing College, creating new work in collaboration with The Heong Gallery, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and the Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge University, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The exhibition – the artist’s largest to date – included installation, sculpture, performance and works on paper. Kourbaj was present at intervals throughout the exhibition, which evolved as he added to the displays.

We are grateful to Wysing Arts Centre for supporting the production of new limited-edition ceramics which are available to buy in the shop.

A concurrent exhibition of work by Issam Kourbaj took place at the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge. A new publication explored the themes and artworks in both exhibitions. ‘Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive’ was curated by Guy Haywood with Amy Tobin.


Kourbaj’s bringing together of art, science and politics creates hugely affective work that simply cannot be ignored.

— Beth Williamson for Studio International

Read the full review


A moving and important exhibition.

— Exhibition visitor


Harrowing, beautiful, timely and deeply moving. Unmissable.

— Exhibition visitor

Photo by Jo Underhill

About 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. Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, where he has been artist-in-residence, a Bye-Fellow and a lector in Art, at Christ’s College.

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: The Fitzwilliam Museum, the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; the British Museum and the V&A, London; Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; Penn Museum, Philadelphia; Brooklyn Museum, New York; the 2019 Venice Biennale and the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.

Dark Water, Burning World is in the permanent collection of the Pergamonmuseu, Berlin, 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

North Cambridge Academy Interview Issam Kourbaj

The year 8 Arts Ambassadors from North Cambridge Academy interviewed Issam Kourbaj for his exhibition ‘Urgent Archive’ at Kettle’s Yard. With thanks to the artist and students. Filmed and edited by Rob Hill.

You are not you and home is not home at The Heong Gallery

A concurrent exhibition of work by Issam Kourbaj is taking place at The Heong Gallery, Downing College.

For Issam Kourbaj, home means many things. It is the womb, skin, or clothes as much as it is a tent, a house, or a nation. You are not you and home is not home at The Heong Gallery brings together works on displacement and migration made by the artist since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

The Heong Gallery at Downing College was inaugurated by Sir Alan Bowness in February 2016 as a new public gallery for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. The Gallery was designed by Caruso St John Architects (winners of RIBA Stirling Prize 2016) and so named in gratitude for the generous benefaction of Alwyn Heong.

Find out more

Stop the Bombs, Not the Boats – A Performance by Issam Kourbaj

On Tuesday 23 April 2024, artist Issam Kourbaj responded to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the UK Government’s passing of its Rwanda bill, through a new performance which was live streamed from the Kettle’s Yard Instagram.

Find out more


We are grateful to the following for their generous support:

Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive Supporters Circle

Emma Davis
Sean Gorvy
Martin H Johnson FRS, FRCOG, FMedSci, FRSB, FAS
Louisa Macmillan
Suling C Mead
Guy Weston & Ina Sarikhani Weston
and all those who wish to remain anonymous


  • The galleries, where exhibitions are shown, and all areas of the Clore Learning Studio (level -1) and Ede Room (level 2) are fully accessible.
  • We have wheelchair accessible toilets on the lower ground, ground and first floor.
  • There is a lift giving access to all floors located past the galleries, just beside the Clore Learning Studio on the ground floor.
  • Kettle’s Yard welcomes assistance and service dogs in all areas.
  • We have large-print versions of the wall text available.
  • We can lend visitors small folding seats for taking around exhibitions or using at non-seated events. Please ask a Visitor Assistant for help finding a seat.

Visit our Access page

Advisory Note

You may find some works in the exhibition distressing as they refer to themes including child loss, war and violence against women.