Numerous miniature boats made from recycled bicycle mudguards, extinguished matches and clear resin on black reflective background.

Issam Kourbaj: Dark Water, Burning World

By Venetia Porter, Curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art

Publication date: 13 December 2021

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 our current touring Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge.

Issam Kourbaj: Dark Water, Burning World

Nestled in a small case in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world in the British Museum is a little flotilla of boats. Emerging out of the gloom, the fragile craft seem to traverse a calm and peaceful deep blue sea. Look more closely, and you will find that these boats are made of metal and filled with clusters of spent matches. The seven boats displayed in the gallery are part of a wider group that is currently on tour around the UK as part of Crossings: community and refuge, along with the Lampedusa Cross, which you can read more about in our blog post.

Two children looking at display case containing miniature boats filled with extinguished matches
Crossings: community and refuge at People's History Museum. Photo: Chris Payne

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.

While Francesco Tuccio made the cross out of wood from a shipwrecked boat carrying migrants to the Italian island of Lampedusa, Kourbaj has made his boats out of recycled bicycle mudguards. For Tuccio, the crosses were to offer a gesture of hope. For Kourbaj, the boats were made with the single purpose of willing us not to forget the innumerable numbers of men, women and children – Kourbaj's countrymen – who have been fleeing Syria since the start of the Civil War that is now 10 years old.

Book open to reveal watercolour across two pages
Issam Kourbaj (b.1963). Sketchbook. Mixed media, including ball-point pen, oil, ink and watercolour washes, 1994–1995. Donated by British Museum Friends.

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. I first met Kourbaj in 2008, introduced by my former colleague Frances Carey who had acquired a sketchbook by him containing studies done in St Ives, Italy and Spain.

The Civil War in Syria, that began as demonstrations on the streets of Deraa in 2011, prompted Kourbaj to make the country the focus of his art. Excavating the Present, an art installation, became the first of his activist projects in 2013. In an extension of the idea of the palimpsest manuscript, etched X-ray plates, images of landscapes and human remains overlay one another in haunting compositions. The aim of this project was to raise funds for Syrian mothers and their families.

Photogram (camera-less photograph) of a collection of assembled X-Ray plates
Issam Kourbaj (b.1963), Excavating the Present. Photogram (camera-less photograph) of a collection of assembled X-Ray plates. 2013. Courtesy of Issam Kourbaj.

As the tragedy of Syria continued to unfold and increasing numbers of Syrians fled their country, the installation Another Day Lost took shape in 2015. Across five sites in London, Kourbaj used recycled materials, books and medicine packets to re-create the refugee camps that were springing up around the Middle East .Around the perimeter of these 'camps', Kourbaj placed spent matches and added one more each day to symbolise the endless nature of the conflict. There would be 12 more iterations of Another Day Lost around the world including in New York, Dubai and Budapest.

Installation of miniature refugee camp made of medicine packaging, discarded books and used matches
Issam Kourbaj (b.1963), Another Day Lost. Miniature refugee camp made of medicine packaging, discarded books and used matches, 2015. Courtesy of Issam Kourbaj.

In 2016, Kourbaj received a call from a friend, the poet Ruth Padel, who was on the Greek island of Lesbos. Distraught at the sight of the camps and the desolate state of the refugees, she urged: 'We must do something together to honour the refugees and the islanders welcoming them.'

Working closely together, each responded to the work of the other. Padel's belief in 'poetry as witness' was echoed by Kourbaj, whose experience with Another Day Lost had sharpened his view that the function of artists is 'to flag the problem, not to find the solution.' Before he visited Lesbos with Padel, he had come across tiny 5th-century BC model boats from the ancient port of Tartus in Syria at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Intrigued, he reflected that 'archaeologists think they portray goddesses at sea. My homeland used to send goddesses to the Mediterranean; in the 21st century it's sending refugees.'

Page of ringbound sketchbook showing sketch of ship
Issam Kourbaj (b.1963), Sketchbook drawings from memory of the fifth-century BC Syrian model ship in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2015. Courtesy of Issam Kourbaj.

Kourbaj experimented with his own renditions of these ancient little vessels – sketches in his notebook took shape in lead, graduating to paper filled with sand. Nothing felt quite right however. A keen user of discarded materials from his childhood in southern Syria, Kourbaj looked down at his bicycle mudguard one day while cycling around Cambridge. 'I knew I had the answer. I asked bike shops in Cambridge to save old mudguards for me. Cut into sections and bent into shape, they make perfect little vessels with their DNA still evident.'

Page of ringbound sketchbook showing sketches of ship and a cross
Issam Kourbaj (b.1963), Sketchbook drawings from memory of the fifth-century BC Syrian model ship in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2015. Courtesy of Issam Kourbaj.

This simple solution opened up a wealth of possibilities. The ironic notion of the word 'guard' was to contrast with the reality of the flimsiness of the boats; the clusters of spent matches now poignantly evoking desperate, frightened people huddled together, water seeping into the boat hinted at by the transparent glue at the base holding the matches together.

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'.

One boat sculpture made from bicycle steel mudguards filled with upright extinguished matches
Issam Kourbaj (b. 1963), Dark Water, Burning World, 2016, repurposed bicycle steel mudguards, extinguished matches and clear resin. © Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of artist Issam Kourbaj.

You can see the British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge at the following venues in the UK over the next two years:

Coventry Cathedral, part of City of Culture – 22–23 May 2021

The People's History Museum, Manchester – 29 May – 5 September 2021

Hastings Museum and Art Gallery – 10 September – 5 December 2021

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.