REVIEW: Returning to a Homeland Through Art and Remembrance

16 May '24

In April 2024, the Arab British Centre, Shubbak Festival and the Foundation for Art and Psychoanalysis organised a trip for the Young Shubbak collective to visit Issam Kourbaj’s exhibition Urgent Archive at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

Young Shubbak is a collective of 18-26 years old artists, curators, producers and creatives who programme multi-art form events that are relevant to young people’s cultural experiences, and promote inclusivity in the arts.

Mariam Tariq Moraiwed Tell, a member of the Young Shubbak collective, reflects on the exhibition and the tour led by artist Issam Kourbaj in the below review.


The sun was shining invitingly through the skylights of Kettle Yard’s front foyer when we arrived at the Cambridge gallery, greeted by artist Issam Kourbaj. “It’s been a dreary week”, he said, graciously, “thank you for bringing some good weather with you.”

Stepping down into the main gallery space, Issam gathered us in the conjoining area between two rooms. A video on the wall of a hand lighting matches and throwing them into a pile underscored his introduction, the repeated striking of match against box composing a jarring rhythm as many of us entered a contemplative trance. Each room was designed to be viewed in circular motion, the former in a counterclockwise round, the latter clockwise. By the time we had walked through both, our footsteps would make a figure-eight shape; we had moved around his art in the shape of an infinity.

Ushering us into the first room, Issam’s figure was quickly engulfed by the paintings and drawings hanging on the far wall from floor to ceiling, one for every moon since the Syrian War had commenced. A didactic reading of names hummed through the otherwise quiet space: these, Issam explained, belonged to the women who had disappeared or died during the war. Speaking their names out loud meant giving a voice to victims of a violent silencing.

The room’s pieces certainly lived up to the name of archive: a record of lives lost, months past, or weeks gone since the start of the Syrian War. Yet unlike a typical archive, this ongoing record of contemporary events requires consistent adding to and updating to ensure a continual relevance to an evolving history. On one wall, shelves of baby bottles filled with miscellaneous objects are logged and recorded by Kourbaj’s pencilled handwriting, one entry for every day that an object was added into the baby bottles containing anything but milk, and one entry for every day since. On another, mattress springs hung from the ceiling, a heavy double entendre indicating the implications of the Arab Spring for the Syrian uprising.

Kourbaj’s art insists on tracking truth, whether through numbers or names; when the war and its effects seem indescribable, quantifying its destruction proves a potent tool for remembering. I thought about the importance of the role of witness at a time like ours: when countries like Syria, Palestine and Sudan face not only the ongoing suffering of war, but often the denial of their losses. When leaders like US President Biden are challenging the verifiability of the death toll in Gaza, the powerful act of making visible the act of recording, remembering, and returning to what we know feels mandatory.

Where the first room focused on numbers and names, the next seemed thematically partial to imagery and words. A tent splattered with paint from Issam’s performance earlier that week (“Stop the Bombs not the Boats”) loomed over the front wall. Looking closely, one discovers that date seeds have been sewn in neat rows on the repurposed tent by local community members, Issam explained, to commemorate the number of weeks since the Syrian war began.

Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry seemed a large part of Issam’s inspiration for some of the pieces in this room. Kourbaj pointed out the Arabic lettering of the poetry he had scribed onto the wall pieces, explaining that he does not always write Arabic to be read. Perhaps this was testament to his own experience with dyslexia, and the meaning of letters to him beyond just their phonetic prescriptions, though it reminded me of the recent criminalisation of Arabic on protest signs by UK law enforcement: what does it do to a language, and as such its people, when words are looked at instead of understood?

Moving upstairs, Issam invited us to explore an archive which had been put together of his own life. From leaflets to passports and photographs (my favourite that of a young Kourbaj painting in front of a crowd on a sidewalk in Leningrad), it was a moving gesture of vulnerability to have his personal memorabilia displayed, like the contents of a keep’s sake box scattered on a table before strangers.

Finally, our group was invited upstairs for lunch. In typical Arab fashion, he insisted on ushering us towards the refreshments table first, wanting everybody to be well-fed and watered before beginning our discussion. Issam asked members of the Young Shubbak team to introduce ourselves, offering up our artistic interests, practices, and training for him to get to know us better.

A ‘Young Shubbaki’ with Syrian heritage asked Kourbaj when he had last been back in Syria, and he admitted it was a painful question. He answered honestly about his determination to leave and never look back, before realising once he left how deeply his homeland had affected him. I asked him about the act of remembering: was it cathartic giving this archive and its memories a place? The writer Hisham Matar had previously referred to the artist as ‘the remembering man’, and Issam accepted the title with humility. “My memories are my capital”, he said, acknowledging how much could be invoked by art like his. It was a responsibility he did not take lightly.

Our day ended wandering around the house, exhibit and gift shop once more before making our way to the garden outside. Through the sounds of spring, our reflections and recollections permeated the space with a friendly silence. At a time like this, my fellow young artists and I have struggled to respond to the urgent demands of death and destruction; an ongoing genocide in Gaza, a population being subjected to extremist violence in Sudan, and the loss of access to homelands like Syria, Yemen, and Palestine.

How does one detach and acquire the distance needed to make art that reflects such desperate circumstances? Issam Kourbaj’s exhibition provided a hopeful answer, for the observer of a cultural heritage and belonging that faces continual threat of forgetting itself beneath the rubble. Perhaps the role of the artist is to return to what we know is true, even if that truth is under constant reconstruction. It is the act of recording what we do see, what we insist into resistant existence. And perhaps most of all, it is seizing the opportunity of remembering. For what we can have, and what we can hold onto, is most certainly our artistic capital.

Urgent Archive is on at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge until 26 May. Plan your visit here.