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Issam Kourbaj Depicts His Grief Over Syria

If Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj is angry he doesn’t show it. If he is fearful or sad it is not immediately obvious in his work. Not for him the savagery of his fellow Syrian artists such as Khalil Younes and Sulafa Hijazi, both contributors to the anthology of works, “Syria Speaks”, recently reported in the Gulf News. No, the work is understated and subtle — it reaches the head before it touches the heart — the viewer has to excavate the truth as one might expect in an exhibition entitled “Unearthed”. Kourbaj who uses old book covers, sheets of paper, bits and pieces says: “I pick up other people’s rubbish and make them into a work of art. I like the sound of words such as palimpsest, excavation and unearthed because they reflect what I am trying to do. I like the smell of paper. I like getting to know things by looking and touching, there are so many questions in the ceremony of knowing. There are ghosts inside these beautiful objects and I am interested in excavating them.” Issam Kourbaj, as thoughtful as his art, was born in Syria and studied in Damascus and St Petersburg, before settling in the United Kingdom, where he teaches at the University of Cambridge as artist-in-residence at Christ’s College. Inevitably the exhibition at the P21 Gallery in London is inspired by the three years of the Syrian Revolution and proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to the charity Médecins sans Frontières. “I shudder to think of what the children of Syria are going through,” Kourbaj says. “How all the beautiful and fragile things that make up a child’s life have been torn to pieces and buried in shattered fragments under the ground. I have tried to capture their suffering with subtlety but to do that without anger is a struggle for me.” A crushed tricycle, which he first created at the time of the first Iraq war in 2003 is an obvious symbol. The three wheeler was first displayed on the floor but now he has fixed it to wall. “Nothing has been solved, the conflicts go on,” he says. “Other children are born, other children are still dying so I put it up on the wall because the children who survived have grown up.” Typical of his work is “Border”, the other side of the sky. It is a large billboard he found in Yorkshire a few years ago and brought back to Cambridge, folded in the back of his car. It had been used for hundreds of adverts which had been stuck one on top of another. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it but I liked the rustiness of it. It is like a war machine, like the wing of an aircraft falling down, but it is also like a border wall. “There were also tiny pieces of adverts — for supermarkets, coffee, iPhones, everything — which were stuck on the wall with pins, like Darwin did with his beetles. I wanted to put the wings of the aeroplane on the wall so I found a massive rusty nail to be a ‘pin’. I wanted something underneath to show what has fallen off the side of the poster that we don’t see, the one facing the wall, so I scattered scraps from the posters on the floor. They represent the hopelessness of my fellow Syrians who are trying to emigrate to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan but are faced with this rusty border and left dreaming of another life.” “Unearthed” illustrates his fondness for using book covers. Stretching across the width of the gallery scores of decorated covers are crossed by black lines like the ribbons of mourning traditionally placed on photographs of the dead. But here there are no faces just blank images of forgotten souls who have perished in the conflict. He took the first pages of books to create “Damascus I” and “Damascus II” and inked, waxed or sanded, them before sticking them together in many layers to create an aerial representation of the city as well as a wall — a recurring theme.

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