Issam Kourbaj was born in Syria, trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus and at the Wimbledon School of Art in London. Issam mixes the knowledge and skills of a fine artist, an architect, and a theatre designer in his art as “the material has to speak, the location has to speak, the scale has to speak, everything has to work together for it to work.” 
Active since the 1990s in Cambridge and, since the 2011, an Artist in Residence, a Bye-Fellow, and a Lector in Art at Christ’s College, his artistic effort has been focused on the Syrian crisis since the same year. Over the last decade, his endeavour has brought awareness as well as humanitarian help and today he showcases two separated, yet innately connected, exhibitions: Urgent Archive, available at Kettle’s Yard Gallery, and You are not you and home is not home, taking place at the Heong Gallery (Cambridge).
Hello Issam! It is truly a pleasure to talk to you today! I know you just opened a new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard Gallery, congratulations!
I want to present this to our readers today, but I believe Urgent Archive would not be fully understood and appreciated without knowing the context of your rich body of work dedicated to the same issue. Indeed, since 2011 and the Modern Syrian Art exhibition at the British Museum, your art has been related to the Syrian Crisis. How would you describe the last 13 years that brought to Urgent Archive and how has your work evolved over this period?
Beautiful question, thank you! I think that the whole 13 years since the uprising in Syria are all one work, one piece of work but [it] is articulated in a different form. I think that each project it's coming from the same source: I am looking at the news and how I can translate this news to myself and to others through my artwork. I could see the linear coming from one project to another project, it's almost like a tree, I think about it as a tree: each branch will give birth to another branch, one big body of work it's all coming together to articulate the crisis in a way that does not explain it, but actually reflects on it. Having this length of time, I am diving into new material, new techniques, new possibilities that I wouldn't have if I had a project for only a few seconds, I wouldn’t have the same kind of reactions because the duration of the project can sometimes kill it or enriches it. In my case, I feel, it enriched it in a way, having this invitation from Kettle’s Yard for the last five years that I have been working with this project, during the pandemic as well, that gave much bigger emphasis or dedication to the project. It's evolved, I am interested in very unexpected material, but this is how it's evolved in general.
This 13-year-long project has seen the light of day in the UK, specifically in Cambridge, where you moved to after studying at Wimbledon School of Art in London. Also, back in 2011, you were an Artist in Residence at Christ’s College, a Bye-Fellow, and a Lector in Art. How did this location and position influence your artistic work?
A Japanese artist called Isamu Noguchi said something very beautiful, he said “we are the landscape we see”. This is very powerful. Being in Cambridge is not an easy landscape at all, being Syrian and being an artist who did not speak a word of English when I came to Cambridge in the 1990s. Of course, being an outsider gives you a strength or a drive that you would not have necessarily working in a very comfortable position. I was really quite challenged in many ways: how to relate to the culture, how to relate to the language, how to relate to my subject, how to be able to teach without language, there are many layers to this. I feel that it gives me strength to be an outsider in this kind of circumstances, it gave me the strength: it is a privilege to be an outsider, a privilege to be an artist, a privilege to be somebody who does not speak English perfectly, many of these elements brought quite a lot. I was trained in the Academy of Art in Russia, I was trained in Damascus in Fine Art, in architecture, and when I came to England, I started studying theatre design: I could see that the potential of making things was really great. Being in Cambridge, the magic is to be able to collaborate with so many different disciplines, there are many different disciplines I worked with – from mathematicians to archaeologists, geologists, astronomers –when you really build bridges between disciplines, you find that there is really a common ground. 
Many incredible exhibitions enriched your artistic career outside of your work dedicated to the Syrian crisis, not only your many collaborations within Cambridge, like the design of the sets for the play Let Newton Be! and for the dance piece Light Matters, but also for external institutions like the British Museum, who acquired a collection of your Sound Palimpsest. Is there one past exhibition, whether a solo or a group one, that you look back to or that left a mark so indelible that you would like to share it with us today?
Actually, yes. There is one and it’s a very special one. It is with my, then, three years old son and I was his assistant: I put him on my shoulders, gave him the brush, and he started painting directly on the walls of my studio. That was to become a child again, a very powerful place because in many ways we try to become very quickly adults and artists are nothing but big children. He reminded me that to be a child, is fine. The exhibition was called is/am, it means he is, therefore I am, I was following his footsteps, even the invitation for that exhibition was his footprint first and my footprints behind. To my delight, he became an artist, he's a filmmaker and he lives in Madrid. That made him a special artist, but equally he gave me quite a lot of inspiration that I wouldn't have thought about if I didn't have a child. From many, I would say 10s of exhibitions I have done, there are many because of collaborating with others, but this one somehow, especially when your childhood is far away from you in time and in space, there is a very nice reminder to bring you back to your former self somehow, at a time when everything was fine and flourishing without any gravity.
Going back to your work dedicated to Syria, much of your past work had pedagogical and educational purposes, like Behind the Headlines: A Revolution in Syrian Art, but also pragmatic humanitarian aims as both Excavating the PresentScattered, Gathered and Another Day Lost raised financial aids. Your dedication to the cause and to address it throughout is admirable, to say the least, and leads us to an avoidable question. What is art for you and what do you believe is its final purpose?
For me, particularly now that I have done this exhibition, I feel that art is almost an invitation for us to slow down, it gives us a space to think in a different frame of mind, to feel in a different heart, to slow down because our life is so fast – spending the day in my studio, the day could go so quickly. For others, this question is the issue of art. Imagine if there is a life without art, bring the question the other way around, do you think that it's worth living? Of course, the word art is such a vast word that contains the word change: the meaning of our changing throughout history but equally it is a tool of breathing, it's a tool of seeing, it is a tool for making us much finer human beings somehow. I feel that the function of art is not education, somehow it is a responsibility of the artist but it's equally the responsibility of the second half, which is the person who is receiving the piece of art. I could make one story, but you could translate it totally differently because of your experience, because of your age, because of your country, so the responsibility of art does not go only for the artist, it is equally for the receiver, the listener in the case of music, the reader in the case of writing. As far as we have this shared responsibility or meaning of art, the world exists in a much more dynamic place, if it's only the responsibility of the artist and the viewer is just spoon fed, it becomes a passive place.
You were born in Syria and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus so your work can transmit a more intimate experience of this ongoing national crisis. However, both this concept of crisis and the Syrian circumstances echo many other conflicts and human sufferings around the world which, as your title reminds us, are more compelling today than ever. Does this reality shape your approach to a specific, personal conflict like the Syrian one?
Very beautiful actually, thank you for this question! Definitely, the earliest involvement in any other crisis was in the early 90s when I went to visit Havana, Cuba. I went to the beach where many Cubans would take furniture and dismantle it to make boots out of it. That was a very moving thing to see, and that story lingered for a very long time in my in my head: an object would give birth to another object in the time of crisis. The minute I arrived back to Cambridge I was studying theatre design, and my studio was behind the ADC theatre there, I started to take their sets and transfer them to my own artwork. I did not study sculpture or performance, but I just felt that to identify with other people’s crisis I wanted to try to find a common language somehow and the language of transforming an object to an art object was a very special thing. Then I did another project with the libraries in 2000 and somehow now I can see that in my work with refugees, these refugees don't have labels, they don't need to be only Syrian, they could be any refugees around the world and the refugees are not only such for political reasons, for economic, for ecological, there are many forms of refugees. To deal with any issue as an artist, I don't need only to deal with Syrian issues simply because it has many echoes around the world in different forms and I know throughout my exhibitions, that people come from many different cultures: yesterday, for example, somebody [saw] the exhibition from Ireland was speaking about the way in which this particular kind of installation speaks to their own history. This is a very big responsibility for me as an artist to speak to other cultures, to speak to the human side of us, not the geographical human, but actually the sensitive, the poetic human that I am interested in.
Another Day Lost reminds me of Urgent Archive's structure as it was a series of installations across five sites in London that resembled refugee camps and was marked with distinctive black lines, based on Arabic calligraphy and traditional mourning ribbons. Can you guide us through the process of setting up such a complex and diverse exhibition?
I now have to speak as a fine artist, as an architect, and as a theatre designer, I mixed them together as the material has to speak, the location has to speak, the scale has to speak, everything has to work together for it to work. I came up with this idea of a miniature model of a refugee camp and the minute I had that idea I thought that a refugee camp has to be in very unexpected places rather than in proper exhibition spaces. This is what we have done. It was part of a festival and the curator tried to find many locations to mirror the locations of refugee camps around Syria like in St. James’s, in Piccadilly, in the church, we had a refugee tent, and we got the exhibition inside the tent, or in Hampstead. The space has to reflect on the idea itself. It's travelled to many different locations around the world and each location gave it new meaning, new energy. And it’s the same thing with any artwork, it depends on where it's sitting, with what kind of lighting. 
What is really interesting for me about the current exhibition, Urgent Archive, is that [it’s at] two different places as I received the invitation from two galleries, and we agreed that it would be a much stronger thing to do them simultaneously and it worked incredibly well. Having issues relating to refugees, to how we are divided at least in two, at least; we have so [many] layers of ourselves that just having it in two places, just the conversation about what to exhibit here what to exhibit there and how to create a narrative, that itself is a very nice journey.
Similarly, Urgent Archive, your largest exhibition to date, includes another extraordinary installation, Our exile grows a day longer and a day closer is our return. This consists of over 4000 date stones, sewn onto a found canvas tent that represents each day since the beginning of the Syrian uprising on 15 March 2011. Please, tell us about this and the sensational collaborative work and meaning behind it!
Beautiful! Again, if you look at the title from the same song as Another Day Lost, it is the same song composed by Lebanese brothers, the first line is called “Another Day Lost” and the second “Our exile grows a day longer and a day closer is our return”. It's about tents: the first one is a miniature of a tent made from recycled material, whereas this one is a proper tent, but I spread it, so it becomes like a sail. The tent itself becomes a sail. I play with words, words are sculptures for me: dates, the fruits, are called dates and have seeds which are called stones. That is how I thought to count days with dates, playing with the with the dates. And then, of course, there are seeds, in the exhibition I used wheat seeds, olives seeds, and dates seeds. In my calculation, I counted 4750: we needed to find them, we need to drill them, we needed to stitch them, and we needed to exhibit them. It's already a quite complex operation, but luckily, I am working with an organisation, they are very well equipped in terms of social interactions with the community that helped us. To my delight my son was here, and he took over for me, I went there on the first day to explain the concept and what I wanted them to do and then he went there, and he started working with them. Now, in the finished product, we have a very powerful piece, just to be nearby it, it's a very powerful thing. To work with a community is very rewarding in many ways because, especially in a subject I don't know, each of them was active to help and you could see that there is a very beautiful energy – the closest to it I imagine, of course in a much smaller scale, is like building the pyramids, people had to work together to make this very mathematical object. At the end of the day, just seeing it end the tent that has lost its function, seeing dates being marked, and human effort that put all of it together. It is another way of marking time – very present in my work – and as are the stones that come from my city, found in a gallery here in Cambridge. They are volcanic basalt stones, a very powerful thing to have in reflection to time, geological time, not just recent time. It is the community, it is the museums, it's the geology, and it is the ongoing crisis.
Another reason why Urgent Archive cannot be taken as a stand-alone exhibition is that it includes key works from the past 13 years alongside a new series which explores themes of loss, memory and renewal. What struck me the most is exactly this inclusion of birth, or rebirth, inspired by a seed’s ability to sprout roots in new environments. Why did you choose to incorporate this in the context of the crisis and of the previous dramatic pieces? 
At the end, it is not the timing of the piece, it is how pieces talk to each other. I am in my studio working on one piece, two or three, I am working with them, but I don't see them together. When you put them in the gallery, you see something you don't see in the studio which is the chemistry between things, the space between them, and therefore it doesn't matter which one is earlier or later, at least visually, the space between them becomes much more literal, it is the chemistry between them. In this exhibition particularly, as you mentioned, the earliest piece I have is from 2012 and the newest from just 3 weeks before the exhibitions. This last one consists of children’s milk bottles, dedicated to Syrian and Palestinian children, it's called All but Milk and is filled with everything but milk, what children in the time of war and crisis are getting. This is what I needed to bring everything to the present. The viewer would not necessarily say “this is an older piece” or “this is the new piece”, it’s a story, look at García Márquez, he usually starts from the end: it’s just a style that you could work with in different ways. I would like to print a palimpsest in my viewer, from one time to another time, to another crisis, it's all the same crisis, human crisis that is articulated sometimes in a bottle. At the end of the day, we are all storytellers, sometimes we use words, sometimes we use images, sometimes we use movement, this is my way of narrating my story.
While Urgent Archive opened to the public on March 2nd and will be available from 11 am to 5 pm until May 26th, a concurrent exhibition of your work is taking place at the Heong Gallery in Cambridge, You are not you and home is not home. What does home mean to you and how does this relate to the Syrian series?
That line, again, was written in different times, originally by a very old Syrian poet, and borrowed by a Palestinian poet and, eventually, me with this title, but in a different format. When we came up with this idea of home, a very complex word, and the curator actually asked me “what is home?” and I was thinking that our home is our skin, at one stage. Then I thought that maybe home is in front of our skin or in the back of our skin. Then I thought no, maybe it's actually underneath our feet or is above our head. I said no, maybe it is none of the above, it actually is an idea, it is so immaterial, the word home is not a physical object, it is an idea that you take with you and it shifts in its meaning from one place to another place, from one conversation to another conversation. The word home is an urgent word itself because every morning one needs to ask oneself “what does home mean to me?”. Maybe every day you scratch one surface and you find one answer or maybe you don't and therefore we have a reason to wake up the next morning to search, like any creative people, one needs to carry [on] such [a] search. I don’t know if there is a definition for the word home and I don't think that we will find a definition for this word, at least one definition, because there are multiple. Because we need something to anchor our feet, the quickest way to describe it is to use a place but I don't think it is a place, I think it is much more internal than that.
Issam, thank you for this and your astonishing work! Is there anything else going on for you in 2024 that you would like to share with us?
There are actually many projects in the pipeline, and they are like seeds, they don’t know what they carry inside them and only in the right environment they sprout, in the right environment they grow. It’s the same thing with ideas, there are so many ideas now and they will sprout in the right time, when I sing for them.
Splintered, 2016
Defaced Intermediate Historical Atlas, 2019
Urgent archives, written in blood, 2019