26 March 2013
Issam Kourbaj‘s exhibition ‘Excavating the Present’ is on at the SIXONESIX Gallery, part of Changing Spaces, until Sunday 7 April. It is an exhibition in collaboration with the Oxfam Syria Crisis Appeal. Here he tells us more about his series of work in the exhibition.
We are a landscape of all we have seen.
We had only one book in our house, and it was kept in the attic. It was called The Science of Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body. It belonged to my sister, then a qualified nurse. As a schoolboy, I remember climbing up to the dark attic and losing – or rather finding – myself in the drawings, in the hidden and intricate wonders of the human viscera.
My mother was very generous. Though she had hardly had any form of schooling, she taught me by holding my hand in her hand; together, we “drew” the twenty-eight letters of the alphabet. She made me understand that letters are not just parts of a word or fragments of language, but a drawing too.
My mother had learnt the art of survival from her mother. My Lebanese grandmother had had her form of surviving the mountains’ cold nights by stitching a thick quilt out of the family’s worn-out clothes. Though I barely knew her (she died before I was able to hold a pencil), her legacy the ‘quilt’, formed my early nightscape. It was my first encounter with abstract form.
My uncle Suleiman, my mother’s brother, who I had never met, formed with his resourcefulness my early vision. He had discovered, in a time of hardship, an unusual source of income. During the French mandate in Syria, many bombs were left unexploded. My uncle found a way to make spoons and coffee pots out of them. Until one day he met his last breath, and found a bomb that did explode.
My city, was named Swaida (Little black town) because it was built from black volcanic stone. Located in the mountains south of Damascus, known for its wealth of vineyards since Roman times, It is home to the ruins of many ancient civilizations. My little black town was a hotbed of Syria’s revolt against the French in the summer of 1925.
The smell of the orange skin burning on the top of the stove marked the transition from one year to another: this was our New Year’s Eve ritual. We all sat round the stove, the kerosene lamp burned and story-telling began. My father had many stories to tell, for he had spent most of his life away, fighting against the French.
In Cambridge, I was privileged to have my first studio behind the Round Church and ADC theatre. My studio was an old snooker room, with no heating. At that time, I was studying theatre design in London, and I created a set for the Olivier Theatre based on the Epic of Gilgamesh – Gilga the hero, he who saw everything. While Gilgamesh looked for immortality, I was busy excavating in the ADC theatre skip. There I found many discarded theatre sets and props, which, I am sure, my Uncle Suleiman would have regarded as unexploded bombs.
I went to Mexico to learn about colour from the Mayans, and then on to Cuba. I started making sculptures out of old chairs. I had been told stories about Cubans who made boats out of their furniture so as to sail to Miami. Unfortunately, many did not survive the waves.
My preoccupation with light began by accident, and in a small way. In 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, I worked on a project called Palimpsest, etching on hospital and veterinary X-ray plates. This project led me to search for further possibilities that light could offer. In the dark attic of my studio at Christ’s College, a knot-hole in the boarded-up window projected a live image of the street and its people and vehicles onto the ceiling. Its discovery made me begin research on a device at that time entirely unknown to me, the pinhole camera, and its natural extension, the Camera Obscura. I conceived a project called Last Light/First Light, relying solely on light-sources, lenses and mirrors.
Since then, I started my experiments with camera-less photography, using light, chemicals and two or three dimensional surfaces; photography at its rudiments. The series, Excavating the Present, is a palimpsest of two different kinds of camera-less photograms. One is X-ray assemblages; though manipulated, they are essentially a photogram, produced by invisible, highly-penetrating electromagnetic radiation, on Mylar plastic coated with light sensitive emulsion. In turn, the X-ray films became “found negatives” and are used to generate the second kind of photogram – produced by visible light on light sensitive black-and-white paper in a darkroom.
The ritual in which archaeologists bring human traces to life is in many ways a reenactment of the burial process, but in reverse. What is unearthed acts as evidence of what shaped the past. Syrians are involuntary archaeologists now, trying to find bits of their martyrs to bury them. We are voluntarily and with courage, excavating our present, searching for light not stained by fear and blood.
In making this series as a tribute to Syrian mothers, I thought of my sister’s book in the attic; my mother’s hand holding mine; my grandmother’s stitching. When the 24 photograms – one for each month of my people’s collective suffering – were ready, I saw the inhuman condition that the courageous women, children and men are going through in my country. I fear for the future of their past and of their present; of the things they daily see; and the landscapes they might become.
~ Issam Kourbaj