Issam Kourbaj: Fleeing his way through the dark

Issam Kourbaj’s Fleeing the Dark at the Tropenmuseum, seeking out the light

The Dutch National Museum of World Cultures has invited Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj to curate an intervention as a memorial to millions of his fellow Syrians who are uprooted and displaced by ten years of the ongoing crisis in Syria. The central metaphor of the exhibition is the seed–like seeds, people are dispersed through conflict but strive to grow again with new roots.

Scaling the Dark: Seeds, Sands, Moons, 2021,Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam

Kourbaj responds to objects in the museum’s collection with his own artworks. Through this, he creates conversations around Syria and other universal themes related to the crisis there, such as war, migration, and home. He reflects on the meaning of time for those experiencing trauma – how can we mark the date of the first protests in Syria on March 15, 2011 when the crisis is still ongoing?

The difficulties of migration and displacement are particularly poignant during a global pandemic when the movement itself risks infection. At a time where soap and hand washing have become vital to our survival, Kourbaj asks us not to wash our hands of Syria.

Kourbaj’s installation serves as an alternative calendar of the Syrian crisis: 3,727 small boats for the days, 532 medium boats for the number of weeks, and 122 boats for the number of months – in total, 10 years. Altogether, the variety of sizes emphasizes the passage of time. Look closely, maybe even kneel next to the platform – each boat is made of recycled material, old drink cans or bicycle mudguard parts. As a whole, the installation might be imposing, but each boat is fragile, capturing the precariousness of all displaced peoples searching for a sense of home.

When looking closely, you will also see that each boat carries a different material, burned matches, sand, and charred seeds. The burnt matches stand in for people and the trauma they are carrying with them through this crisis. The sand was once stone, which was once a monument, and so the sand represents the destroyed monuments and history of Syria. The seeds are charred, symbolizing the pain people experienced, but a partly charred seed can still grow into a plant.

Issam Kourbaj; Scaling the Dark: seeds, sands, moons; 2021; 4,381 boats made from drink cans, bicycle mudguards, charred seeds, sand, and burnt matches; loan from the artist

Scaling the Dark: Seeds, Sands, Moons, 2021, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam

The artist

Issam Kourbaj has a background in fine art, architecture, and theatre design. He was born in Sweida, Syria and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts and Architecture in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and at Wimbledon School of Art in London. Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge where he has been an artist-in-residence, a Bye-Fellow (2007-2011) and a Lector in Art at Christ’s College Cambridge. His work has been widely exhibited and collected – most recently by the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Since 2011, Kourbaj has been dedicated to raising awareness and money for projects and aid in Syria through several exhibitions, installations, and performances in the UK and abroad. His installation Dark Water, Burning World (2014) has recently (December 2020) been nominated as the 101st object in the BBC radio program A History of the World in 100 Objects.

In the context of the intervention Fleeing the Dark at the National Museum van Wereldculturen, the Tropenmuseum and the RCMC will host a reading/presentation of creative work by local poets, writers, and growers: Amal Al-Shaabi, Sam Barakat, Saba Hamzah, and Rami A. Ramou. They will engage both with Kourbaj’s intervention.

  Meet the Kourbaj at The Trauma of the Seed: Reflecting on Issam Kourbaj’s Fleeing the Dark 3 September