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Carving soap while blindfolded – Issam Kourbaj

Issam’s memories of the Fitz are many but he is drawn to something from his birthplace Syria. His mind’s eye recalls three small eye idols, 5000 years old, from the ancient Syrian city Tell Brak.

Issam asks “What is the future of my past”?

He creates sculptures of the eye idols, like everyone’s family, watching what is happening in the world. He uses soap from Aleppo and carves while blindfolded. The soap reminds us to wash our hands during our Covid crisis, but also that the world cannot wash its hands of all that is going on.

Podcast transcript

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  1. 00:00:00 - 00:00:12
    Carmen Pryce Hi, I'm Carmen Pryce, and this is “In my mind's eye: The museum explored”, a podcast where I talk to artists and writers during lock down about their memories of the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge.
  2. 00:00:13 - 00:00:18
    Carmen Pryce In this episode, I talk to former artist-in-residence and bye-fellow, and lector in art, at Christ’s College. Cambridge, Issam Kourbaj.
  3. 00:00:19 - 00:00:30
    Carmen Pryce Issam is a frequent visitor to the museum, and he's worked on a number of projects with the museum over the years, including “Dark Water Burning World”, about the Syrian uprising and the plight of refugees.
  4. 00:00:30 - 00:00:58
    Carmen Pryce Now, although the distance between us is less than a mile, I spoke to Issam on an online call as a face to face interview was out of the question, because it would've broken social distancing rules. But as close as it, was it wasn't easy, and the sound quality varies a bit. Sharp eared listeners may pick up on a particularly squeaky swivel chair in the background. Still, it's the new normal, and we've come to accept these things in our covid lockdown restricted world.
  5. 00:00:59 - 00:01:09
    Carmen Pryce I made this remote recording on Friday, the seventh of August 2020 at 5:35 British summer time. Issam, hello And thank you for joining me on this lock down call
  6. 00:01:09 - 00:01:11
    Issam Kourbaj Carmen, thank you very much for calling me.
  7. 00:01:11 - 00:01:18
    Carmen Pryce Now tell me about your lock down situation. Where are you? Who you with and how is the situation affecting your working day?
  8. 00:01:18 - 00:01:42
    Issam Kourbaj I am actually in my studio and I am with my family in the back of the garden. I have my studio and I am working as usual and lockdown. I have no sense of it if I am working in my studio because it's the same routine. I am visiting my studio full time, but only when I take my dog for a walk, I see the world is not the place.
  9. 00:01:44 - 00:01:49
    Carmen Pryce Now I want to start with this question of museums and memories. The museum's been closed for months now.
  10. 00:01:50 - 00:01:52
    Carmen Pryce What do you see “In your mind's eye” when you think of the Fitz?
  11. 00:01:52 - 00:01:54
    Issam Kourbaj It's actually interesting that
  12. 00:01:55 - 00:02:06
    Issam Kourbaj if you are asking me about specifically the Fitz and, it is if you are asking me about the building is one thing. If you're asking me about the artwork is another thing. If you are asking me about

  1. 00:02:07 - 00:02:12
    Issam Kourbaj temporary exhibition that I have seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Each of them has a different
  2. 00:02:12 - 00:02:17
    Issam Kourbaj compartment, if you like in my memories. But generally speaking, I think that
  3. 00:02:18 - 00:02:20
    Issam Kourbaj the building itself for me,
  4. 00:02:21 - 00:02:29
    Issam Kourbaj I remember from very early stages in my life heading Cambridge. I used to use the building for teaching perspective,
  5. 00:02:29 - 00:02:46
    Issam Kourbaj and it's such a very beautiful building in itself and a few years later, talking about perspective, I used a few buildings in front of the the Fitzwilliam Museum's, and I blocked the window and I made camera obscura where I have seen the Fitzwilliam Museum upside down.
  6. 00:02:47 - 00:02:50
    Issam Kourbaj So here is the building itself, and it's such a magnificent building
  7. 00:02:51 - 00:03:04
    Issam Kourbaj and the ritual, of course, coming from fine art, architecture and theatre designed by ground, I feel, of course, when you enter the building is this welcoming staircase, and it's inviting you to, towards the light.
  8. 00:03:05 - 00:03:34
    Issam Kourbaj Equally. There is another staircases going coming down, and each course each time you pass the place or you you go to one place in the museum, your, if you like, vision takes you to a different place. Of course, I'm not telling you from my memory, but equally if I tell you that I have seen many beautiful temporary exhibitions there. I have seen Ivor Hitchen, I have seen his painting, beautiful paintings, John Harris with his drawings and sketchbooks. And, of course, I have seen Darwin
  9. 00:03:35 - 00:03:39
    Issam Kourbaj endless forms and the way, how science and I'll speak to each other
  10. 00:03:39 - 00:03:42
    Issam Kourbaj now. Finally, if you would like me to talk about artworks,
  11. 00:03:43 - 00:03:50
    Issam Kourbaj I have seen many beautiful artworks that is, I need to visit each time I visit the museum.
  12. 00:03:51 - 00:03:54
    Issam Kourbaj For of course, I have to visit my dear friend Nicholas. This time
  13. 00:03:55 - 00:04:05
    Issam Kourbaj twentieth century contemporary artists, modern artists and actually, one painting that's always I love to visit, and I have to say hello when I go
  14. 00:04:06 - 00:04:07
    Issam Kourbaj to the Fitz, which is the
  15. 00:04:08 - 00:04:18
    Issam Kourbaj Danish French 19th century Impressionist painter called Camille Pissarro. It's a tiny small paintings in the snow, and it's such a beautiful piece.
  16. 00:04:18 - 00:04:23
    Carmen Pryce Is that the painting you see “In your mind's eye”, the Pisarro?
  17. 00:04:23 - 00:04:32
    Issam Kourbaj Actually, particularly with what I am currently working with in the back off my eye is all about Syria, and therefore what I see currently in the back off my eye
  18. 00:04:33 - 00:04:35
    Issam Kourbaj is a very beautiful
  19. 00:04:35 - 00:04:39
    Issam Kourbaj object. Tiny small object. It's called the eye idol.
  20. 00:04:39 - 00:04:41
    Carmen Pryce The eye idols of Tell Brak in gallery 12?
  21. 00:04:41 - 00:05:01
    Issam Kourbaj Yes, recently I went probably a few months. I mean, I'm talking recently, now our sense of time is distorted. I'm talking about actually late 2019. One even does not know what is 2020 looks like yet. And I saw this very beautiful three
  22. 00:05:02 - 00:05:03
    Issam Kourbaj small
  23. 00:05:04 - 00:05:11
    Issam Kourbaj eye idols from Syria and I was really although I have seen many, many times. But for some reason
  24. 00:05:12 - 00:05:15
    Issam Kourbaj this time I felt that if they
  25. 00:05:16 - 00:05:30
    Issam Kourbaj they have this kind of presence and this is we're currently occupying at the back off my eyes both in my day time and in my night time because I feel that it's such a very powerful image it is I'm really
  26. 00:05:30 - 00:05:34
    Issam Kourbaj excavating it in a different media
  27. 00:05:34 - 00:05:38
    Carmen Pryce And what is it about the idols that draws you to them?
  28. 00:05:38 - 00:05:50
    Issam Kourbaj They are 5000 years old objects and of course it is tiny small sculptures made of alabaster, the one in the Fitzwilliam Museum. And they're designed the simplified design. It's almost
  29. 00:05:51 - 00:05:53
    Issam Kourbaj the contemporary art piece,
  30. 00:05:53 - 00:05:55
    Issam Kourbaj the enlarged eyes, the material
  31. 00:05:56 - 00:05:57
    Issam Kourbaj and the way how
  32. 00:05:57 - 00:06:01
    Issam Kourbaj they were exhibited, that togetherness of them. They really I felt that they are a family
  33. 00:06:01 - 00:06:02
    Carmen Pryce Go on…
  34. 00:06:02 - 00:06:07
    Issam Kourbaj Since the Syrian crisis. I was armed with a question.
  35. 00:06:08 - 00:06:10
    Issam Kourbaj What is the future of my past?
  36. 00:06:11 - 00:06:21
    Issam Kourbaj I am actually talking to you and in front of me there is a very old photograph of my family, my father, my mother and my two sisters and my brother and myself, age five
  37. 00:06:22 - 00:06:45
    Issam Kourbaj and this photograph used to be, we used to have this family. If you like identity card for rationing materials, sugar and rice and everybody is looking to the camera. Of course, it's probably early sixties and it's really great. I felt very much I wanted to do something relating to families using these idols.
  38. 00:06:45 - 00:06:47
    Carmen Pryce Tell me a bit more about your thinking?
  39. 00:06:47 - 00:06:48
    Issam Kourbaj because they are a family.
  40. 00:06:49 - 00:06:56
    Issam Kourbaj I am thinking they are, they are people I know they are people I have seen. I have listened to.
  41. 00:06:56 - 00:07:07
    Issam Kourbaj They are my family. They are everybody's family. They are everybody now in this waiting position, they are waiting. I just feel that they have.
  42. 00:07:08 - 00:07:12
    Issam Kourbaj They have their own histories, but their histories speak to our histories.
  43. 00:07:13 - 00:07:21
    Issam Kourbaj They are waiting. Like all of us, we are going through coronavirus. We already found out how vulnerable we are as a species,
  44. 00:07:22 - 00:07:27
    Issam Kourbaj but we are still waiting for Is there any exit from this crisis?
  45. 00:07:27 - 00:07:29
    Issam Kourbaj So I felt that it's touching
  46. 00:07:30 - 00:07:30
    Issam Kourbaj my memories,
  47. 00:07:31 - 00:07:48
    Issam Kourbaj but it's equally the memory of the object itself and it's almost like, reflects not only my question about Syria, but actually we are all eyes on the world. What is happening in the world now? So I felt it's very appropriate to take this object as part of the my thinking.
  48. 00:07:48 - 00:07:51
    spk_0 What you going to do with that memory? What are you going to create?
  49. 00:07:51 - 00:08:02
    Issam Kourbaj Of course, it is like anything else. Always. There is a relationship between the concept, the material and the context. And this is the composition between these
  50. 00:08:02 - 00:08:04
    Issam Kourbaj elements. So
  51. 00:08:04 - 00:08:07
    Issam Kourbaj I never experienced sculpting
  52. 00:08:08 - 00:08:09
    Issam Kourbaj blindfolded.
  53. 00:08:09 - 00:08:25
    Issam Kourbaj I experienced growing, but I never experienced sculpting. So I thought I would love to sculpt something similar to the eye idols. But actually because of their scale they have this kind of tenderness. One could hold them in the hand.
  54. 00:08:26 - 00:08:30
    Issam Kourbaj So I thought, OK, what can I do with what material I could sculpt them with?
  55. 00:08:31 - 00:08:36
    Issam Kourbaj Because of their nature, I thought I will be interested in sculpting them from
  56. 00:08:37 - 00:08:40
    Issam Kourbaj soap because I'm really interested in soap
  57. 00:08:40 - 00:08:48
    Issam Kourbaj as I really I feel this is something. Now we are dealing with washing our hands. And then again, what kind of soap
  58. 00:08:49 - 00:09:09
    Issam Kourbaj I thought will be really interesting to dig into the history of soap from Aleppo, it's almost similar in time 5000 years ago, they used to make soap out of the local materials and I thought will be really nice to make this eye idol , to sculpt them from Aleppo soap. And this is what I am doing and I'm going to do many of them.
  59. 00:09:10 - 00:09:16
    Carmen Pryce So you've closed your eyes to create something new from a memory that you have of the Fitz, right?
  60. 00:09:16 - 00:09:18
    Issam Kourbaj Absolutely. And this is actually twice
  61. 00:09:18 - 00:09:28
    Issam Kourbaj if you like. The distance is twice the distance. The museum is closed, but equally my eyes are closed. And I found that is really quite an interesting subject for me.
  62. 00:09:29 - 00:09:44
    Issam Kourbaj That is, they are remote. They are remote, if you like, twice away from me. And not only that, actually, I'm doing quite a lot of with my left hand with my right, and I am right handed. So it's there is. I'm always interested in this kind of contradiction.
  63. 00:09:44 - 00:09:48
    Carmen Pryce If Issam, you were good enough to send me a clip of you working blindfolded.
  64. 00:09:49 - 00:09:54
    Carmen Pryce How did that make you feel? What you see when you're doing that? What you thinking?
  65. 00:09:55 - 00:09:57
    Issam Kourbaj I am really interested in the way how
  66. 00:09:59 - 00:10:06
    Issam Kourbaj we overuse things. We take things for granted. For me, I was really interested to go back to
  67. 00:10:07 - 00:10:30
    Issam Kourbaj almost to create from myself a child again or a primitive person again in terms of not taking things or if you like undoing things that when I learned my right hand is if you like, well trained, it's the adult. My left hand is the child. And I was really interested in visiting my
  68. 00:10:31 - 00:10:39
    Issam Kourbaj primitive side, my child side, my spontaneous side. And I felt that is having the simplified image of this
  69. 00:10:39 - 00:10:47
    Issam Kourbaj very powerful eyes of, of, the eye idols and the scale of them. I felt I am really in touch of something
  70. 00:10:47 - 00:10:55
    Issam Kourbaj with something that I am not familiar with. And this is what I am really interested in this project that is inviting me to think
  71. 00:10:57 - 00:11:02
    Issam Kourbaj with new materials, with the new approaches, with new, if you like
  72. 00:11:04 - 00:11:11
    Issam Kourbaj new dimensions. This is what I'm really interested in. I am interested in responding to it in a way that
  73. 00:11:12 - 00:11:20
    Issam Kourbaj if you like visiting different aspect with the, of of, seeing of their visible and both,
  74. 00:11:20 - 00:11:24
    Carmen Pryce Can you describe what you're doing, what your memories are doing, how they're helping you.
  75. 00:11:25 - 00:11:25
    Issam Kourbaj Actually,
  76. 00:11:26 - 00:11:28
    Issam Kourbaj we are archaeologists by nature.
  77. 00:11:29 - 00:11:34
    Issam Kourbaj As an artist, I use my memory to create tools for
  78. 00:11:35 - 00:11:37
    Issam Kourbaj excavating the future.
  79. 00:11:37 - 00:11:46
    Issam Kourbaj But as an artist, I'm really interested in excavating the present as well as the past, and I feel that is this object
  80. 00:11:47 - 00:11:48
    Issam Kourbaj is
  81. 00:11:49 - 00:11:49
    Issam Kourbaj somehow
  82. 00:11:51 - 00:11:53
    Issam Kourbaj the tenderness of, of this
  83. 00:11:54 - 00:11:56
    Issam Kourbaj almost preying eyes.
  84. 00:11:57 - 00:12:02
    Issam Kourbaj I felt that is, I have a big responsibility to have a conversation with them.
  85. 00:12:03 - 00:12:09
    Issam Kourbaj Each time I make a stroke because it is blindfolded. I am almost like
  86. 00:12:10 - 00:12:13
    Issam Kourbaj I am touching the object. But in my mind,
  87. 00:12:14 - 00:12:23
    Issam Kourbaj I am touching the time of that object being produced. I am touching the idea of them, almost having a conversation with
  88. 00:12:24 - 00:12:25
    Carmen Pryce What's that like?
  89. 00:12:25 - 00:13:08
    Issam Kourbaj It's like like anything else when you bring the destruction to the studio. It is really a difficult thing to deal with, how as an artist. But this intensified even many, many forms because of the lock down and when I was working with the eye idols and I ordered some Aleppo soap. So So I thought, actually would be really nice to reflect on what we're going through now. We are going through a Corona virus. We're going toe throw black lives matter. And I thought I would like to link them together, and I made a very big artist book for Beirut and what's happening with it recently?
  90. 00:13:08 - 00:13:34
    Issam Kourbaj The destruction I felt. This is very appropriate. One page, it's called Corona Virus: Wash your hands. Where is the second page? Black lives matter. Don't wash your hands and I am using for both. I lived with soap as a metaphor, and then when you turned the book, you will see the chemical attacks in Syria and don't wash your hands. But what is the three subjects all to do with breathing?
  91. 00:13:35 - 00:13:38
    Issam Kourbaj So it's all to do with the breath of the
  92. 00:13:39 - 00:14:11
    Issam Kourbaj Corona virus, or I cannot breathe with black lives matter or breathing chemicals in Syria. So I felt that is linking these three objects together in one book, all relating to Aleppo soap, but also came to my studio because of the eye idols so, there is this kind of spiral energy coming through my work from one leads to the other and the dance between. One subject to another subject. And I don't want the world to wash their hands of all these issues that we are dealing,
  93. 00:14:12 - 00:14:14
    Carmen Pryce Issam, I agree with you. I think you've made some
  94. 00:14:15 - 00:14:19
    Carmen Pryce interesting points and I look forward to seeing your eye idol soap family.
  95. 00:14:20 - 00:14:21
    Carmen Pryce Thank you,
  96. 00:14:21 - 00:14:29
    Issam Kourbaj Thank you very much Carmen. Hopefully one day will see the museum open and. Hopefully the art work will be speaking to others. Thank you.
  97. 00:14:31 - 00:14:42
    Carmen Pryce Issam’s massive Syrian soap family of idols, together with the original idols of Tell Brak, will be on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the Cypriot gallery from the fifth of November.
  98. 00:14:43 - 00:14:48
    Carmen Pryce If you're unable to visit, images of the work can be found on the Fitzwilliam Museum website.
  99. 00:14:49 - 00:14:53
    Carmen Pryce You'll also find details of “in my mind's eye” and transcripts.
  100. 00:14:54 - 00:15:01
    Carmen Pryce That's all for now. But join me again next week for another episode, or subscribe to Fitzwilliam Museum podcasts and download the series
  101. 00:15:02 - 00:15:06
    Carmen Pryce in my mind's eyes. Made possible by the support of the Belvedere Trust,
  102. 00:15:06 - 00:15:16
    Carmen Pryce this episode was produced by me Carmen Pryce, with audio production by Nick Harris. The background music is "Call To Adventure" by Kevin McCloud on his licenced under the Creative Commons Agreement
Carving soap while blindfolded – Issam Kourbaj

About the object

Eye-idol, stylized and flat

Acquisition and important dates

  • Method of acquisition: Given
  • Dates: 1966


Identification number

A photo of Issam Kourbaj, copyright Trinity Wall Street Church New York
A photo of Issam Kourbaj, copyright Trinity Wall Street Church New York

Issam Kourbaj was born in Syria and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts & Architecture in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and at Wimbledon School of Art. He has lived in Cambridge, UK, since 1990, where he has been artist-in-residence and bye-fellow, and lector in art, at Christ’s College.

His work has been widely exhibited and collected, including by the British Museum and V&A; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Museum of Classical Archaeology and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; Penn Museum, Philadelphia; Brooklyn Museum, and Venice Biennial 2019. Since 2011 his artwork has related to the Syrian Crisis and reflects on the suffering of his fellow Syrians and the destruction of his cultural heritage.

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