The artist whose work speaks of the plight of millions

He comes from Syria, a country torn apart in conflict. For two years, artist Issam Kourbaj wrestled with the question of how to express the plight of people displaced from their homelands. The poignant installations he creates from waste material convey the scale of the current refugee crisis.

Issam Kourbaj in his studio with bicycle mudguards (Nick Saffell)

The future of my past, as a Syrian artist, is an immensely difficult question to bring to my studio. Since the start of the conflict, the media has been flooded with news about archaeological treasures looted from my homeland. These priceless items are sold on the black market. The suffering of millions of Syrians is even more terrible. The people abandoning their homes carry a burden of trauma that will haunt them and their offspring for generations.

In April 2016 I stood in the Fitzwilliam Museum looking at three tiny model ships from the 5th century BC. They come from the ancient port of Tartus in Syria. Archaeologists think they portray goddesses at sea. My homeland used to send goddesses to the Mediterranean; in the 21st century it’s sending refugees. As I gazed at these boats, imagined their journey through time and wondered about the craftsmen who made them, an idea began to take shape in my mind.

I decided to make small boats to represent the fragile vessels that refugees use to make perilous voyages across the Mediterranean. The antique Syrian ships in the Fitzwilliam are made of medium density lead sheets with repoussé decoration. I needed something I could bend and shape, quickly and cheaply, just as refugees use whatever they can lay hands on.

Issam Kourbaj holds boats made from bicycle mudguards (Nick Saffell)

In my childhood home in the rugged Druze region, nothing was wasted. I was brought up with stories of my uncle. After the French left Syria, he searched for unexploded bombs, which he made into spoons and coffee pots to sell. He drew his last breath when one of them blew up. On winter nights we kept warm beneath a quilt my grandmother had stitched together from pieces of worn-out clothes.

I’ve always sought out discarded materials to explore their possible voices. For days, I cycled round Cambridge looking for something to make boats with. Nothing was right. Then I glanced down at my bike mudguard and knew I had the answer. I asked bike shops in Cambridge to save old mudguards for me. Cut into sections and bent into shape, they make perfect little vessels with their DNA still evident.

My installation at the Fitzwilliam is called Dark Water, Burning World. My boats are shown alongside the museum’s three model ships. Inside my boats burnt matchsticks crowd together, a reference to an exodus of biblical proportions. On 15 March 2017, to mark the sixth anniversary of the uprising in Syria, the poet Ruth Padel joined me to present this art intervention, reading her poem ‘Lesbos 2015’.

Dark Water, Burning World at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Issam Kourbaj)

When I came to Cambridge in the late 1980s, I knew very little English: just yes, good and thank you. I trained as a painter in Damascus and as an architect in St Petersburg. At my first show here, my work was shown alongside art by Elisabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi and John Piper. I sold some drawings to a couple who’d set up a private art college. They asked me to give drawing classes.

I taught my pupils to draw and they taught me English. It reminded me of my mother helping me to learn the Arabic alphabet. She’d had only one month of schooling but she took my hand and guided me to write the first letter of my name: “ع”. The sound of this letter, in both Arabic and English, has mystical echoes. In both languages, it means eye. I understand now that my mother wasn’t writing — she was drawing.

Issam Kourbaj in his studio at Christ’s College (Nick Saffell)

To work as an artist you need time and space. I’m artist-in-residence at Christ’s College, an institution with a strong tradition of supporting the visual arts. My studio is full of found objects waiting to speak with a new voice. It’s above a former furniture shop in a building owned by the college. When the previous occupants moved out, they left heaps of old account books, many of which I’ve used in my work.

In late 2011, soon after Syria descended into civil war, I gave a talk at the British Museum which was staging an exhibition called Modern Syrian Art. My sketchbook and other artworks acquired by the museum were in the show. After the talk there were questions. The final question was whether I was planning to produce any work in reaction to events in Syria. My tentative answer was no. I said it was really difficult to bring the news of my homeland destruction to the studio and deal with it.

It took me two years to be able to respond to what’s happening in Syria. I can’t explain in words the pain I feel though, of course, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m safe in Cambridge with my family. I don’t want to fight but I need to do something. To mark Syria’s Mothers’ Day on 21 March 2013, I staged an exhibition called Excavating the Present in Cambridge and raised funds to support the work of Oxfam and MSF in Syria. Everything I’ve made since speaks about my homeland and its refugee crisis.

Unearthed (Issam Kourbaj)

Unearthed (in Memoriam) 2014 is an installation using hundreds of old hardback book covers. Some covers are painted with blocks of colour, others have a black line painted across them, drawing on the Syrian tradition of placing black ribbons over photographs of the recently deceased. In 2014, this installation covered the floor of St Peter’s church next to Kettle’s Yard, and in 2016 it was shown at Art Exchange, University of Essex. In July 2017 it will be installed in the British Museum’s Great Court.

In 2015, I came up with one of my most ambitious projects — an installation called Another Day Lost. With a team of volunteers, my wife and my boys, I made thousands of small tents from medical boxes and discarded books to represent the huge refugee camps built to shelter people fleeing conflict. I surrounded these miniature encampments with thousands of spent matches, each day adding a burnt one, to convey the days lost since the Syrian uprising. The installation was curated by Louisa Macmillan and has been shown on three continents, Europe, North America and Asia.

Another Day Lost (Issam Kourbaj)

One of my latest pieces features a child’s dress dipped in plaster — it’s called Lost. A collaboration with Ruth Padel, Lost deals with the fate of so many Syrians, who attempted to seek refuge in Lesbos, Greece. This clothing item holds the ghost of its past, and acts as evidence of and a gravestone for its recent carrier, someone who never managed to reach the shores of Lesbos, but drowned and was lost in dark water.

On the dress there are scripts in Arabic and Greek. They spell out the words: “unknown girl, four years old, blue dress.” This is how deaths are recorded. The piece can be seen at the Museum of Classical Archaeology until 9 June 2017.

Lost (Issam Kourbaj)

Syria had a unique fabric of cultures, religions and ethnicities. It is home to two of the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited cities: Damascus and Aleppo. Countless world civilizations left great legacy in my homeland. Much of it is being destroyed. Lots of crafts and traditions are being obliterated too — with them the smells and textures that give a place its identity.

Aleppo is famous for its soap made from bay leaves and olive oil. My art installation Aleppo Soap: Don’t Wash Your Hands is the final piece in a current show at the Penn Museum in the USA.

Aleppo Soap: Don’t Wash Your Hands (Issam Kourbaj)

Living in a city as diverse as Cambridge, and being part of the university, opens up endless possibilities. Over the years, I’ve run collaborated with scientists, astronomers, archaeologists, poets, mathematicians, composers, palaeontologists, dancers, choreographers, psychotherapists, architects, theatre directors, designers of microscopes and engineers. As an artist, I’m armed with a drive to experiment and play. Enquiry, to me, is a joy.

Issam Kourbaj will be speaking with poet Ruth Padel at the Victoria & Albert Museum (Refugee Week: Dark Water, Burning World) on 21 June 2017, and with curator Venetia Porter at the British Museum (Living Histories) on 2 July 2017. Both events are free. Booking required for the V&A talk.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.