Issam Kourbaj

Issam comes from a background of fine art, architecture and theatre design. He 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 (London). Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, eventually becoming an Artist in Residence at Christ’s College, a Bye-Fellow (2007-2011) and a Lector in Art.

In 2009, as part of Cambridge University’s celebration of its 800th anniversary, Issam was invited to design the sets for the play Let Newton Be! and for a contemporary dance piece Light Matters, which was presented in the University Senate House. His Cambridge Palimpsest, a puzzle box linking time and archaeology, was also published by Cambridge University Press as part of the celebrations and was presented to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their first official visit to Cambridge.

He is interested in collaborating with other creative science and humanity disciplines and has produced work using different forms of Camerae obscurae, inspired by Ibn Al-Haytham’s work on optics.

His work has been widely exhibited and collected and in 2008, a collection of his sketches Sound Palimpsest (some inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh and others by language, war and memory) was acquired by the British Museum and exhibited in their Iraq’s Past Speaks to the Present exhibition, run in parallel with their major 2008-2009 exhibition Babylon: Myth and Reality. The Museum also featured Issam’s work in their 2011 exhibition: Modern Syrian Art at the British Museum (part of the 1st Shubbak Festival: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture).

Since then his work has related to the Syrian Crisis and reflects on the destruction of his cultural heritage.

His Excavating the Present – Cambridge, March 2013 exhibition raised funds for Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontiere (MSF) Syria Crisis Appeals, and proceeds from his exhibition Scattered, Gathered in Kuwait 2014, went to Al Madad Foundation’s education and literacy programs on the ground in Aleppo, Syria. Issam has also participated in Behind the Headlines: A Revolution in Syrian Art, a discussion on Syria and art through looking at objects from the British Museum.

2015 saw Another Day Lost, (part of the 3rd Shubbak Festival): a series of installations across five sites in London, inspired by and based on the Syrian refugee crisis. These installations resembled ‘refugee camps’ constructed out of waste materials such as medicine packaging and discarded books. The ‘tents’ were marked with Kourbaj’s distinctive black lines, based on Arabic calligraphy and traditional mourning ribbons, and encircled with a ‘fence’ of used burnt matches. On the first day of the festival, there were 1,579 matches in every ‘fence’, and another match was added for every day of the exhibition, resulting in a total of 1,593 matches by the end of two weeks on display. Each match represented a day lost since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. The sites were scattered around London, mapping out and loosely reflecting the geographic pattern of refugee presence outside the borders of Syria. The installations at Goethe-Institut London and St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, roughly related to the locations of camps along Syria’s southern border; Central Books in East London correlated to the cities of northern Iraq; 10 Golborne Road represented Lebanon; and Heath Street Church, Hampstead, approximated the location of camps in Turkey.

Soon after, it was shown on the upper deck of HQS Wellington warship on the River Thames (September 2015), at Trinity Wall Street in New York (December 2015 – January 2016), Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia (February 2016) and Alserkal Avenue, Dubai (March 2016), Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (May 2016) and Central European University, Budapest (June 2016). Funds raised from Another Day Lost were donated to MSF and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR): donations may be made on the Another Day Lost Justgiving page:

In 2016, he exhibited his work with other international Middle Eastern artists for the Movement of the People exhibition at the Art Exchange Gallery, addressing the harsh reality of living with conflict.

To mark the sixth anniversary of the uprising in Syria on 15 March 2017 Issam was joined by the poet Ruth Padel to launch Dark Water, Burning World at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Several editions of this artwork are currently on display at: the Penn Museum, Philadelphia, USA, part of the exhibition Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq, the British Museum, part of an art intervention by the artist called Scars, in response to the museum’s 12th century ceramic wasters from Syria, at D. Thomas Fine Miniatures Gallery, “WEE#RESIST,” an exhibit of miniature political art, NYC.

Dark Water, Burning World was also installed for one day at the Jameel Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the Refugee Week 2017, and in November 2017 is going to be at The Lookout, part of Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017 Festival.

Lost, an artwork exploring the plight of Syrian refugees using repurposed items of clothing dipped in plaster with text in Arabic and Greek, was exhibited at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge and is currently on show at The Penn Museum, Philadelphia, and the British Museum.

Both, Dark Water, Burning World and Lost are going to be part of the British Museum’s upcoming exhibition Faith and Society in Nov 2017 – April 2018.

At the launch of the 4th Shubbak Festival 2017, Unearthed, hundreds of old hardback book covers placed side-by-side as an archive of remembrance, was an installation/performance by Issam at the Great Court of the British Museum.