Venetia Porter, Curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East Art delves into the background behind Syrian-born, UK-based artist Issam Kourbaj’s evocative boat artwork. The boats are part of British Museum’s current touring Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge.
At each venue, from Manchester to Hastings, this evocative installation has fostered conversation and debate around what is a dominant issue of our time – the plight of millions seeking refuge from war and poverty who need to use any means possible to find a safe place for themselves and their families.
Born in Suweida in southwestern Syria, close to the border with Jordan, Kourbaj has lived in Cambridge since 1990. With a background in fine art, architecture and theatre design, he trained first at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, then at the Repin Institute of Fine Arts & Architecture in St Petersburg and the Wimbledon School of Art in London.
Kourbaj installed his boats alongside the ancient boats from Tartus at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2017. He called it Dark Water, Burning World – and on the sixth anniversary of the uprisings, Padel joined him to read her poem Lesbos (2015) which evokes stories told to her by the migrants and islanders she originally encountered on the island of Lesbos. Now subsumed under Kourbaj’s title Dark Water, Burning World, her poem ended:
‘…and their stories our stories
steered by the small star-light of cell phones
waves like rings of a tree
rings of the centuries
rocking and spilling on the windy sea
as if water kept its shape
after the jug has broken
one shining petrified moment
before the shattered pieces fall away’ (Lesbos, 2015).
The powerful resonance of the Fitzwilliam display led to further opportunities. At the British Museum, in the Living with gods exhibition, the boats were shown as the last work alongside the Lampedusa Cross, and on Christmas Day 2020, the boats were chosen as ‘Object 101’ on the tenth anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s The History of the World in 100 Objects. The evocative idea in all its simplicity had highlighted the numerous ways in which the little boats could now be deployed – whether alongside the Lampedusa Cross as part of a Spotlight Loan, or freed into large-scale installations. Kourbaj has now made thousands of tiny boats, which have been shown in venues around the world, from the altar steps of King’s College, Cambridge to Penn Museum, Philadelphia, Brooklyn Museum in New York, and most recently at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam.
‘I did not set out to make a historic piece,’ he says, and yet the project has become so. ‘My job is to remind the world’.
You can see the British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge at the following venues in the UK
Derby Museum and Art Gallery – 10 December 2021 – 6 March 2022
Ipswich Museum – 11 March – 12 June 2022
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery – 18 June – 18 September 2022
Rochester Cathedral – 22 September – 27 November 2022
Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Dorchester – 1 December 2022 – 26 February 2023
Supported by the Dorset Foundation in memory of Harry M Weinrebe.