Syrian Artist Issam Kourbaj Reflects on Home through Intricate Installations

June 29, 2016

In a discussion during the CEU School of Public Policy's 2016 annual conference the view from here: artists // public policy, Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj had an intimate conversation with the audience about his youth and evolution as an artist.

Born in Soweida, Syria, where the revolution against the French began in 1925, Kourbaj described his home region, the Middle East, as "the navel of the whole of human civilization." As a child, Kourbaj grew up surrounded by recycled objects like spoons his uncle had fashioned out of dismantled bombs or his grandmother's quilts. "Recycling materials is embedded in my DNA," said Kourbaj, and it shows in his art.

Kourbaj began painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus and was later accepted to the Repin Institute of Fine Arts in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Receiving his first passport to attend school in Russia felt like "a recognition of [my] place in the universe," said Kourbaj.

His work touches on words that Kourbaj likes: excavation, palimpsest, unearthed. "My work is about Syria without being explicitly about Syria," he said. In his installation "Excavating the Present," Kourbaj used x-rays and photograms to construct broken landscapes of space and bodies. Connecting the imagery to Syria, viewers contemplated the fragility of life and home.

In another installation, "Unearthed," Kourbaj laid down book covers, marked with black lines for mourning as is done with funeral photos in certain cultures. With this somber creation, Kourbaj shared his pain and agony as the Syrian conflict rages on. Using book covers rather than photos, Kourbaj noted, "There are no faces since you don't know who has died in the conflict."

At SPP, Kourbaj exhibited the 12th edition of "Another Day Lost: 1,906 and counting..." Created with discarded books, sheet music, aerial photography, maps, medicine packaging, and matches, Kourbaj repurposed the material under a UNHCR tent. All editions of Another Day Lost were curated by Louisa Macmillan.

Another Day Lost by Issam Kourbaj. Photo: SPP/Daniel Vegel

"There are questions in the ceremony of touching," Kourbaj said, thinking about the recycled materials. "Who touched this book before? Who made the book? Who read the book?" The end result of the collection of these materials is the appearance of a vast refugee camp. With 1,906 matches surrounding the "camp," a new match was burned each day, symbolizing another day lost in the Syrian conflict.