Issam Kourbaj, artist and mentor – “Dark Water, Burning World”

Ruth HartleyArt Process, Creativity, Displacement, Family, Human rights, Migration, Refugee, Visual Arts, WarLeave a Comment

Wonderful good fortune

A small boat made from a bicycle mudguard has a cargo of burning matches

Dark Water, Burning World – installation by Issam Kourbaj at Kings College Chapel Cambridge

Sometimes you know that you have been really lucky! I was when I met Issam Kourbaj, a Syrian artist in Cambridge.

I can’t remember who told me about Issam’s workshops but I went along to one without a clue about what to expect. Possibly I heard about Issam from someone at Cambridge Artworks where I had a studio for some years. Issam became one of the most important influences in my artistic life. His mentoring followed a key creative time in my life in Zambia  after my work at Mpapa Gallery and the invaluable Mbile, now Insaka International Artists Workshops (Triangle Trust and Robert Loder).


Issam’s C workshops in Cambridge

Issam had a studio at Christ’s in Cambridge and the first workshops were at CAT. Every workshop challenged conventional approaches to art and made us think with our eyes and create art in new forms and dimensions. My own art practice hasn’t looked back since those days. They were fun and they were inspiring.

Issam’s own work and exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard Cambridge

Torn papers painted with a portrait suggest emotional fragmentation

Emotional Landscapes by Ruth


Issam has a thought-provoking and evocative exhibition opening today at Kettle’s Yard called “I will be here” Cancelled copied page from his expired Syrian passports, each stamped with the word CANCELLED. Coinciding with his work here is an installation in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Dark Water, Burning World about the tragedy that is Syria. On the same subject of syrian refugees Issam Kourbaj’s Strike is now at Great St Mary’s church and he will be giving a talk on Mon 26 Mar 1-2 pm at Michaelhouse. Kettle’s Yard is a place I remember with great fondness for its support for local artists and its help through its kind director, Michael Harrison, with the setting up of Cambridge Artworks. I was given a little prize for a small art piece that was shown there which was inspired by Emotional Landscapes, a song by Bjork.

The tragedy that is Syria

A grey-haired artist in a red and black check shirt draws at a table in his studio

Issam Kourbaj works in his Cambridge studio

Issam’s work is intensely moving. He has been engaged for years now in the hard work of showcasing the suffering of Syria through his art and he has a page for donations to help those who are victims of the war. Issam is a quiet family man, with a grizzled close-cut beard and kind, humorous eyes who comes from a Druze family in Syria. He is an academic with wide experience from different countries. I admire him greatly. I think you can see how much Issam influenced my work and in fact, some of my recent work still draws on the workshop experience that I had with him.

Refugees and my own work

A larg sign marks the frontier at which refugees must wait - a path of torn maps and footsteps circles past drawings of a road, weather and water that refugees must travel on.

Waiting – installation by Ruth about the journey made by refugees

A folded paer boat from a photo of a refugee boat has a matchstick for a mast - it is pinned to a rough sketch of rain drops

Refugee boat by Ruth made in 2016









I, too, from my own experiences in life as a terrified young woman running away from South Africa in 1966, have had my heart wrenched by the suffering and deaths of migrants and refugees. My own work has been on the same subject at the Deuxieme Regard exhibition at Mazeres Church curated by the  Peleyre gallery. I also used a symbolic match in my refugee boats installation. Issam’s work is of a quality and a scale that is incomparable. I hope that you will go to his Just Giving page and make a donation – Issam knows what it is to be Syrian.



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