Issam Kourbaj at St Peter’s Church

My mother once told me that all beaches were graveyards. She meant it literally: shells are skeletons, after all. And there is nothing to which I can better compare Issam Kourbaj’s remarkable installation in St Peter’s Church than to a beach. The piece is entitled ‘Unearthed (In Memoriam)’, and Kourbaj himself: a remarkably polite, well-spoken man openly confesses to being fascinated by the idea of remains. Indeed, according to Andrew Nairne, his artistic practice has often been described as a kind of archaeology of the present.


Yet what Kourbaj has created here is weightier than mere flotsam. I had to ask him where he found the book covers, hardbacks whose spines are laid with great care across the church’s floor, some marked in order to recall the black ribbons placed over photos of lost loved ones. Kourbaj smiled, explaining that he had rescued them from bookbinders, where they would otherwise have been thrown away. He went on to explain a fixation with giving a voice to objects otherwise seen as voiceless. The covers are lain at marginally different heights, in order, according to Kourbaj, to allow them individuality: to stop them running together and becoming too homogenous. The water in the font that sits at the centre of the church’s makeshift shore is raised too, close to overflowing and dark as a deep sea.

Kourbaj has lived in Cambridge since 1989, and for a great deal of that time has been artist in residence at Christ’s College. His roots lie in Syria, and it is by that country that this installation has been informed, in particular by its recent sufferings. A photograph, taken from a bird’s eye view of the installation is on sale in Kettle’s Yard gallery as a postcard, and all proceeds will support Médecins San Frontières. Yet there is no sense, even in the quiet broken shells of the books, that Syria or its people are entirely lost. Indeed, in a piece accompanying the installation, entitled ‘After Image’ and inspired by a brief, contorted note from Kourbaj’s barely literate mother, there is hope as much as there is tragedy, if not more of the former. Kourbaj taught his mother to write, she herself had only received one month of schooling in her life. When he and his son visited her in Syria in 2004, she attempted to write a note expressing her affection. Kourbaj seems to have seen in this note both the enormous love of a mother, and the frustration of expression, and the tantalising difference between form and meaning. Inverting the letter, and writing with his left rather than his right hand, Kourbaj created a piece which looks like Arabic and yet even to one that is literate in the language, I am assured by the artist, is entirely incomprehensible.

There is something special here. There are the bones of letters and the bones of books, washed up in a little stone church, in a little old town in England, whispering dusty dreams of another country. It is difficult to explain this silence, as it is difficult to explain the emotion of considering a beach to be a graveyard. This is both a renewal and an ending, the uncomfortable juncture of the two in which we stand as archaeologists with one foot in somebody else’s grave, and as human beings on the threshold of potential life, and learning.

Kourbaj cares about the individual, about the broken books and the crooked backs of his mother’s letters. He thinks about the light within the church, and the journey along the path up to it, he thinks of perspective and of texture. This is not a sweeping statement, or a number too large to appreciate. It is personal. For that reason, it is great.

Issam Kourbaj’s installation will remain in St Peter’s Church until the 26th October.

words from Gabrielle Watts
image via Kettle’s Yard