For six months (from July 4, 2011 to Jan. 9, 2012), the John Addis Gallery at the British Museum exhibited a small retrospective of Syrian modern art. The exhibition, titled “Modern Syrian Art,” included artwork by great names such as Marwan Kassab-Bach (popularly referred to as Marwan), Youssef Abdelke, a rare multimedia triptych by the poet Adonis and many others.
Last month, one of the exhibited artists, Issam Kourbaj, visited the gallery to talk about his work and his experience as the student of the “Godfather of Syrian art,” Fateh Moudaress. This small exhibition displayed a generational trajectory of a short, yet highly emotionally and expressive frame.
Two of the more blatant commonalities among this group are, first, that each of the artists whose works hang in the small room was trained outside of Syria. This includes all except Sabhan Adam, whose freakish, deeply colored fairy tale creatures are the great result of his own self-training. A majority of the artists who did learn outside continue to work in the respective cities of their education. Yet, regardless of where they work, the second common theme between each of them is their unsurprising gravitation around politics and brutality.
Marwan trained in Berlin in the 1950s and has worked from there ever since. His work retains an aesthetic defined by the German modernist influence and “he is commonly referred to as a German artist who happened to be born in Syria,” as it was put by the curator of the exhibition, Louisa Macmillon. Marwan’s “heads” or portraits are akin to Francis Bacon’s surreal style and Lucien Freud’s irregular shapes, accentuating a certain experimental emotion. Marwan continuously comes back to the dehumanized human, in the form of marionettes and mangled, bruised faces that lose their refined characteristics, leaving them violent and disorderly.
Youssef Abdleke is another Syrian painter who still resides in the city where he was first trained, Paris. His life-size paintings commonly depict a triptych of men, the central figure portrayed as hefty and overbearing, while the two men on either side of him blur into the background. This symbolic formation of three men side by side is a comment on the governmental imagery supporting the cults of personality ruling within the region.
Issam Kourbaj, however, like his teacher Fateh Moudarress, went back to Syria to practice his art and be an art educator. Kourbaj was at the museum to tell his story. Gathered around a showcase carrying his and Moudarress’ works, a small group of people listened to him discuss his relationship with Moudaress. “My teacher was inspired by icons, but he himself was an icon to many people in Syria.”
Kourbaj’s education took him back and forth between the UK, Russia and Syria. His family, made up of calligraphers, secretaries, travelers and nurses, played a role in inspiring him through their own work and interests. Kourbaj openly credits them for his use of images of the anatomy, words and found objects. “My mother couldn’t write,” he told the group, “but taught me to write by encouraging me to see the letters as images.” Throughout his talk, he kept dipping into his bag of objects, illustrating his stories with samples and extra bits to show.
Now based in Cambridge, Kourbaj first arrived in the UK in the 1980s. Having retained a mentoring relationship with his teacher in Damascus, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he decided to curate a two-person show exhibiting his own work along with Moudaress’. The show would be titled “Sketch,” but Moudaress had decided he wanted more than sketches in the exhibition. He gave Kourbaj a small book with the title “A Stick of Mint,” later published as “The Mint Tree” and told him to translate it and include it in the display.
“I hadn’t known that Moudaress was a writer,” Kourbaj recalled. Kourbaj took the book and the exhibition was a success. Moudarres sadly passed away the following year in 1999. At this point, in the small alcove surrounded by the major works of art from Syria, Kourbaj shared with his audience the flier from his Cambridge exhibition, now more than 10 years ago. This item, while nothing more than a small, dark green tinted piece of folded paper filled with basic information, is a relic that spoke volumes. It signifies a very personal accomplishment for Kourbaj; it is also the final piece of ephemera representing an exhibition by Syria’s “Godfather of art” during his lifetime.
“Moudaress was inspired by his childhood, just as I always like to go back to mine,” Kourbaj pointed this out to be among the first things he noted about his teacher. His piece exhibited in the showcase in the center of the space was entitled “Sound Palimpsest,” a collection of collages that indeed references his childhood and his inspirations from then. Moved by the destruction in Iraq, he brings together fragments of “X-rays, the human body and absence — the layers you don’t see,” he explained. Reflecting particularly about the point in which he saw bombs hit the Baghdad Library and books flying around in the air, an image struck in his head: “I looked at it as if the words are cut by destruction. They are unfinished words.”
At that point, as expected, a question came from the group: “Will you be working on anything in reaction to the situation in Syria today?” Kourbaj paused for a moment. With some of the artists displaying works in the room unaccounted for on that afternoon, this question laid in heavy both in terms of personal emotion, as well as artistic expectation.
“It’s too close, I’m trying. I am sure it will come,” Kourbaj answered frankly. “It is such a different thing to hear news and attach it to a studio. It needs experimenting; I want a new language, a new form. Images are hard, but we’ll see.”