“Urgent Archive” at Kettles Yard

Claire Parrish LG on Issam Kourbaj’s recent exhibition at Kettle’s Yard.

Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Photography Jo Underhill

‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’ Kafka

My initial reactions to Issam Kourbaj’s exhibition ‘Urgent Archive’ at Kettles Yard, Cambridge, were ones of shock, grief and deep sorrow. Wall writings asked us not to look away, not to wash our hands of Syria: in the last 13 years, 14 million Syrian refugees have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety, thousands of people have been lost without trace, rich cultures and heritage completely eradicated. The exhibition coincided with the 13th anniversary of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, and the terrible facts and giddying statistics hit like a freight train. At this point, I guiltily admit to fancying an early visit to the café. That I didn’t is testimony to Kourbaj’s resilience, sensitivity and skill as an artist, who uses archives as a way to use found images and objects, which he collects, scrutinises and gives new purpose to help us comprehend such traumatic events on both a historical and personal level. This process is inspired, in part, by memories of family members who dismantled unexploded bombs to make domestic tools and cutlery, and throughout the Kettles Yard show, Kourbaj adapted pieces, rearranged or withdrew them, so that core themes of loss, displacement, memory, survival and hope could be quietly but firmly offered to the audience for our contemplation and exploration.

Dragan Kujundžić, when he wrote Archigraphia On The Future of Testimony and The Archive To Come (2003), linked the principle of archivisation with the idea of survival, his discussion recalls the importance of the trace as indicative of transience and death, while at the same time marking the future. He goes on to discuss two types of ‘spectral’ testimony, one devastating – the silent testimony of those who are literally unable to speak of what they have endured – the other promising hope. [1]

Kourbaj uses diverse media techniques to offer us his testimony: installation, sculpture, performance and works on paper all appeared and disappeared in this evolving archive. It was interesting to note that despite the melancholy subject matter, the show felt almost intimate at times: Kourbaj’s placement of pieces was done in a way that could almost be domestic, giving the effect that someone was with you, very quietly whispering their story over your shoulder as you walked around the galleries.

Issam Kourbaj, Urgent archives, written in blood, 2019. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition is titled after Kourbaj’s work Urgent Archives, Written in Blood (2019), and directly relates to Syria’s political prisoners: to those whose names had to be written in blood inside the seams of a journalist’s shirt, and smuggled out of prison on his release. Going into the gallery to see this work was certainly a sombre moment, and that instead of giving us the prisoners’ names, Kourbaj’s response had been to draw, deface and make emotional gestural marks over pages of found books, disrupting, editing or challenging information. Knowing Kourbaj has been unable to visit Syria since 2007, by using unrelenting daily archival acts he continues to witness and remember the stories of these lost lives.

Issam Kourbaj, Killed, detained and missing (women), 2019, ink on Pianola scrolls. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy of the artist.

In Killed, Detained and Missing (Women) (2019) Kourbaj has written the names of women killed, detained or missing in Syria on found narrow pianola rolls, and repeats their names on the accompanying audio recording. Kourbaj said: “When I saw the scrolls, I thought, these are silenced. The silenced technology has gone. It’s collapsed. This is what has happened to these women.” In another gesture of revealing/redacting, Kourbaj painted women’s names on the gallery windows facing out into the street, then painted out the background glass in blue paint so obliterating them when viewed from within the gallery. It felt like a memorial. In an additional interview, Kourbaj explained that glass windows were always painted blue so that light couldn’t escape and be spotted by bombers flying overhead.

Issam Kourbaj, Dark Water, Burning World, 2016, 1000 small boats, made from recycled bicycle mud-guards, packed with upright burnt. matches. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy of the artist.

Dark Water, Burning World (2016), fleets of little metal boats made from mudguards hold charred matches, fragile figures, refugees huddled together for safety.

Issam Kourbaj. Date seeds. 2024. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy of the artist. 

Seeds, the potent metaphor of renewal, hope and essentially holders of their own genetic archive, also reoccur throughout the show; enlarged photos of wheat seeds singed, damaged or burnt to a cinder; individual date seeds sewn daily onto a damaged canvas tent, marking the 4,750 days since the Syrian uprising and looking like the five-bar-gate time-marks you might find on a prison wall. And, in collaboration with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, & Cambridge Botanic Gardens, Kourbaj grew Syrian wheat in areas around Kettles Yard. Kourbaj who grew up in the Fertile Crescent area of Syria, describes his early memories collecting grain as a boy, and when in 2015, the National Seed Bank in Aleppo was bombed, it required the first withdrawal from the Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, (which hold duplicates of 1,214,827 seed samples). His concern with seeds, the impact war has on agriculture and food production in the region and in the wider world, is pressingly current and urgent.

In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1989), social and ethical philosopher Giorgio Agamben says: It is not surprising that the witness’ gesture is also that of the poet….the poetic world is the one that is always situated in the position of a remnant and that can, therefore bear witness. Poets – witnesses – found language as what remains, as what actually survives the possibility, or impossibility of speaking.

Claire Parrish, 2024

Issam Kourbaj: Urgent Archive
was on show from 2 March – 26 May 2024
Kettle’s Yard
University of Cambridge
Castle Street, Cambridge, CB3 0AQ

Issam Kourbaj, Another Day Lost, 2019, old diary and broken date stamp. Photo: This Is Photography. Courtesy of the artist.

Issam Kourbaj (born in Syria 1963) trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, Repin Institute of Fine Arts & Architecture in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and Wimbledon School of Art in London.

Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, where he has been artist-in-residence, a Bye-Fellow and a lector in Art, at Christ’s College. Since 2011 his artwork has related to the Syrian Crisis and reflects on the suffering of his fellow Syrians and the destruction of his cultural heritage.

His work has been widely exhibited and collected, and most recently it was featured in several museums and galleries around the world: The Fitzwilliam Museum, the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; the British Museum and the V&A, London; Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; Penn Museum, Philadelphia; Brooklyn Museum, New York; the 2019 Venice Biennale and the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. Dark Water, Burning World is in the permanent collection of the Pergamonmuseu, Berlin, and the British Museum. For the BBC’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects,’ Neil MacGregor (the former Director of the British Museum) chose Dark Water, Burning World as the 101st object.

[1] Charles Merewether, writing about Dragan Kujundzic’s work, in The Archive, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery 2006

+ Archigraphia On The Future of Testimony and The Archive To Come (2003) Dragan Kujundžić
+ In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1989), Giorgio Agamben link to pdf file