Press release:

Fleeing the Dark: An intervention by Issam Kourbaj

The Dutch National Museum of World Cultures has invited Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj to curate an intervention in the Tropenmuseum Lichthal, where he combines his own artworks with objects from the collection that inspire him. The intervention marks ten years since the start of the crisis in Syria. Thousands of miniature boats, a rare 16th century Herbarium and more form Fleeing the Dark, an exhibition about migration, growth and hope. The exhibition opens May 28.


Kourbaj’s site-specific installation of thousands of miniature boats tenderly counts the days, weeks and months lost since the start of the Syrian crisis. The renowned BBC program A History of the World in 100 Objects recently chose Kourbaj’s installation of miniature boats as the 101st object because of its unique ability to encapsulate the past decade.  "An ancient Syrian eye idol from the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) Leiden reminded Kourbaj of many Syrians waiting to return to their former homes and inspired him to carve figurines from Aleppo soap blindfolded, emphasizing the carvings’ vulnerability."

The unique 16th century Rauwolf Herbarium with preserved Middle Eastern plants from Naturalis Biodiversity Centre will be on display for the first time in Amsterdam. Kourbaj combines his handwritten poem written across the back of 366 used postage stamps with an Arabic exercise book from Indonesia.

Doors from Aleppo hang from the ceiling of the Tropenmuseum Lichthal and children’s sole-less shoes mark migrations to Europe. Kourbaj utilises discarded materials to make most of his artworks, and he saw parallels in the recycled materials used in some of the museum objects that spoke to him for their deep connection to our everyday lives.

Seeds of hope

Kourbaj’s artworks deal with themes related to the Syrian crisis, some of which are deeply personal to his own history. The intervention, however, tells a more universal story, reaching beyond the borders that define our world today. What can a simple drawing carved on a bowl from Aleppo tell us about our human journey in a time when we are forced to live apart? Like seeds, we all have the urge to put down roots and belong. The theme of seeds and renewal that returns throughout the exhibition foregrounds much needed hope. Some of the miniature boats carry one burnt seed. The KIT Royal Tropical Institute collaborates in this project by growing seeds from Syria on the Tropen Café terrace donated by International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). We hope to bake bread from these seeds at the end of the exhibition.

Issam Kourbaj

Issam Kourbaj has a background in fine art, architecture and theatre design. He was born in Suweida, Syria and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts and Architecture in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and at 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 (2007–2011) and a Lector in Art at Christ's College Cambridge. His work has been widely exhibited and collected – most recently by the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Since 2011, Kourbaj has been dedicated to raising awareness and money for projects and aid in Syria through several exhibitions, installations and performances in the UK and abroad.  Kourbaj’s work will be included in the British Museum exhibition, Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa, and a major exhibition of the artist’s work will be presented by Kettle’s Yard and The Heong Gallery in Cambridge UK in 2023.


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