Thursday, 26 June 2014

Unearthed exhibition - Syrian Artist Responds to Conflict in his Homeland

Unearthed (in Memoriam), 2014, repurposed book covers/credit: Emma K Freeman

I love artist studios with their works in progress scattered all over, tools and material everywhere, the smell of paint and that special light, so I was delighted when Issam Kourbaj invited me to visit his studio in Cambrige.  Koubaj is a Syrian artist living in the UK, currently working on Unearthed, a exhibition inspited by the conflict in Syria.  I spent an afternoon in his attic studio and another at the P21 Gallery in London where Unearthed opens on July 4 and runs until August 16. I watched as he put the final touch to his pieces and listened to the processes and stories behind them. Each piece is his reflection on the conflict in Syria, but also carries fragments from his childhood in Swaida, a small village built from black volcanic stone in the mountains south of Damascus. 
Kourbaj is a wonderful storyteller, so I wish I could tell his stories here. Instead, I wrote this article about the exhibition. You can also read it on the Huffington Post's website.
Unearthed - Syrian artist responds to the was in his homeland

Over the last three years, Issam Kourbaj, a Syrian artist living in the UK, has been watching from a painful distance the war eviscerating his homeland: its people, its cities and villages, its past and present, and its memory. 

He brings the images of death, destruction and displacement reported by the media to his studio in Cambridge. There, in his attic rooms crammed with all matter of reclaimed objects, he tries to digest, respond and translate the war images into subtle forms "with meaning rather than anger. 

"My work is a quiet gesture, an archive to remember those who have been forgotten, and an invitation to ponder what the future might bring to what's left of my people and of my country," he says.

The result is Unearthed - a mesmerizing and haunting body of work in multimedia: his response to the Syrian conflict, as well as fragments from his childhood in a small village in the Druze mountains south of Damascus. The exhibition opens at the P21 Gallery in London on 4th July and runs until 16th August. 

Kourbaj was born in Syria and studied art, theatre design and architecture in Damascus, St. Petersburg and London. Since 1990, he has lived in Cambridge where he is artist-in-residence at Christ's College and teaches at the university. His work has been widely exhibited and is held in numerous private and public collections, including that of the British Museum.

For this exhibition, he has worked with a wide variety of media, from drawings on paper and photographic and optical work, to large-scale installations made for and assembled in the gallery itself. The exhibition is arranged as a journey, where pieces echo one another and create a multi-layered experience.
Damascus I, 2013, ink, collage and cut-out paper/credit: Emma K Freeman

For example, the exhibition opens with Damascus I, a piece based on an aerial map of the old city. Assembled from loose pages from reclaimed books, inked and sanded, it looks like an ancient wall or perhaps mummified skin. "It is the entire city - its many layers, its history." At end of the exhibition, we see Damascus II. It has a sculptural feel to it. It is the buckled, distorted version of Damascus I - a fragile, skeletal city - a city being destroyed by war.

Damascus II, 2013, ink, collage and cut-out paper/credit: Emma K Freeman

Most of Kourbaj's work is created from "excavated" objects - discarded poster fragments, X-rays plates obtained from a local hospital, sales records from a furniture shop, broken chairs and book covers found in a bookbinder' skip behind his studio. 

The 7-meter long Border, the other side of sky is the reverse side of a huge torn piece of billboard collected from a nearby skip. It looks like the rusty wing of an airplane. Scattered underneath, as if falling from the other side, are tiny pieces of colourful paper like little flecks of hope. "They represent all the people who are trying to cross the border, going to the other side of the sky. They don't know where they are going or whether they are going to make it."

Counting, Alphabetising, 2014, paper, fabric and leather fragments; insect pins/credit: Emma K Freeman

Counting and Alphabetising is a moving, 17-meter-long piece about loss. Small, colourful pieces torn from cardboard, fabric and leather book covers ("but they could be pieces of flesh or clothes") are pinned on the wall like butterflies in an immense entomological display. There are tiny ones arranged in neat rows and larger ones more randomly displayed. "They are a sort of archiving of what remains, of the fragility of life." 
Part of the same display, After Image was inspired by his mother. "I taught her to read and write. She was almost making drawings instead of writing. I wanted to connect with her and the struggle to make oneself heard or seen." In order to do this, Kourbaj formed his large letters upside down and with his left hand. 

Unhearted (in Memoriam), 2014, repurposed book covers/courtesy of P21

For Unearthed (in Memoriam), the artist covered 18 meters of wall with mounted discarded hardback book covers. Some are painted with bright colours and some are plain, but most have a black line painted across them, reminiscent of the traditional black ribbons used to indicate mourning in many countries. The sheer number of them - "all these lost, redundant books of which only the cover remains" - is a poignant reminder of the growing number of lost lives in Syria. 
171 weeks and ongoing..., 2011 onwards, ink on paper//credit: Emma K Freeman

One of the exhibition's last works, 171 weeks and ongoing..., is a diary of the war. Kourbaj started making abstract ink marks on cards (old record sales from a furniture store) during the first week of the conflict and keeps adding a new one every week. "They are inspired by the news, but I re-digest them. The images of the war from the media are too much to take. I needed to filter them."

The P21 Gallery is a London-based non-profit organisation promoting contemporary Middle Eastern and Arab art and culture. Proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to Médecins sans Frontières who are working in Syria.

Exhibition dates: 4th July - 16th August, 2014
Readings by Ruth Padel and Hisham Matar: 16th JulyArtist's talk with Venetia Porter: 23rd JulyCurators' talk with Bibiana Macedo and Louisa Macmillan: 30th July

Monday, 9 June 2014

End Sexual Violence in Conflict: #TIMETOACT – Global Summit

"Rape was a reward the leaders gave those who killed. This is why I didn't love my daughter – her father was the one who killed my family. I wanted to kill her, too,” said Levine Mukasakufu about her daughter, Josiane Nizomfura. 

Levine is one of the half a million women raped during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, when the country's ethnic Hutus tried to wipe out the minority Tutsis.

Two decades after the genocide, television journalist Lindsey Hilsum returned to hear the extraordinary testimony of women who were raped during the violence – and of the children born as a result.  It is estimated that some 20,000 children were born of rape during the genocide. 

Although rape occurs in all wars, it was especially widespread in Rwanda, and the consequences are felt to this day, Hilsum wrote in a moving, thought-provoking article in the Guardian. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda concluded that rape was an integral part of genocide. "Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group … destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself," said the verdict on the Hutu leaders who organised the genocide in the Butare region.

This week's Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted by the British foreign secretary, William Hague, and actress Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, aims to put victims such as Levine and Josiane at the centre of war crimes investigations.

The summit, which opens tomorrow and runs until Friday  (10- 13 June) at ExCel London will be the largest gathering ever brought together on this subject. Over 100 countries and over 900 experts, NGOs, survivors, faith leaders, five Nobel laureates and international organisations from across the world will participate. Governments are expected to sign a new protocol for documenting wartime sexual assaults and adopt programmes to educate their soldiers that rape is a war crime rather than an inevitable consequence of conflict. The summit also aims at taking practical steps to reduce the dangers women face in conflict zones and increasing support for survivors of sexual violence and for human rights defenders.

There will also be three days of free public events taking place in the Summit Fringe. 

“For the first time in history, a world summit highlights and denounces a crime that is normally made invisible and is often silenced by the majority of States,” said journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, a survivor of sexual violence in Colombia’s conflict. 

Alongside journalists and human rights defenders from Egypt and Mexico, Jineth will speak at a fringe event on 12 June organised by ABColombia and Peace Brigades International (PBI) looking at the risks entailed for those who speak out on the issue.

“Female reporters and activists suffer sexual abuse ranging from virginity tests conducted by the state, to group attacks on women during protests, and to the sexual violence practiced on women (and men) who are detained for protesting or opposing the state, all of which are escalating in Egypt", said Rana Allam, Editor-in-Chief at Egypt’s Daily News.