Issam Kourbaj’s “Another Day Lost” On View In Cambridge

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Another Day Lost: 1,888 and counting…

by Issam Kourbaj

curated by Louisa Macmillan


14th May, 2016
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
South Lecture Room, Cambridge

In the winter of 2014, Issam Kourbaj called me up excitedly to tell me that he had an idea for an installation. Earlier in the year, I had co-curated his solo exhibition, Unearthed, at P21 Gallery, London, in which the eponymous installation, Unearthed (in Memoriam) covered a 16-metre long wall in hardback covers of second hand books. Issam had rescued these from bookshops and libraries, repurposing and marking them with his distinctive black lines, originally based on Arabic calligraphy but, in this artwork, taking on the role of mourning ribbons. When Unearthed (in Memoriam) was shown for the second time, at St. Peter’s Chapel, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, the book covers were lovingly laid on the floor, where they took over the main body of the chapel and resembled gravestones in miniature.

Above: Unearthed (in Memoriam) St Peter’s Church KY by Sir Cam.
Top right: Unearthed (in Memoriam) St Peters Church KY aerial image by Chris Going.
Bottom right: September 2015 HQS Wellington (aft) by Mathew Hodgkin.

Issam never wastes anything, and the insides of these books were no exception, which, for several weeks, he had been dismantling, almost dismembering, in a process that he describes as “traumatic”. He then drew upon the pages, scored, folded, glued and cut them until a few hundred boxes were sitting in front of him. It was at this point that Issam rang me to tell me that the boxes scattered on the floor, en masse, strongly reminded him of aerial images from a Syrian refugee camp (Al Zaatari, Jordan). I agreed with him wholeheartedly, but suggested that a refugee camp needs a fence, and Issam returned to me a week later with the brilliant idea of using yet more discarded material to create the fence: burnt matches, which he intended to arrange in tally marks to count the days since the Syrian uprising began on 15th March 2011. He then christened the installation Another Day Lost (inspired by a Fairouz song).

Over the next few months, Issam furiously made many, many more of these boxes (approximately 20,000 of them) in preparation for their installation as part of Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture (July 2015). We developed the idea of showing Another Day Lost at five simultaneous locations across London, which reflected the pattern of refugee camps outside Syria’s borders, on a smaller scale. Ranging from Hampstead (representing Turkey) to Hackney (Northern Iraq) to South Kensington (Al Zaatari itself), the installations were adapted to suit their locations, which included churches, a warehouse and a derelict pub, much as refugees have to adjust to the ad hoc situations in which they find themselves.

Top: July 2015 St. James’s Piccadilly (Jordan-Iraq border) tent interior by Issam Kourbaj.
Middle: July 2015 Heath St. Baptist Church (Turkey) by Issam Kourbaj.
Bottom left: Dubai March 2016 Damascus box by Elmer Magallanes.
Bottom right: Dubai ADL March 2016 side by Elmer Magallanes.

Since then, Another Day Lost has been exhibited on a boat on the Thames (September 2015), travelled across the Atlantic to be shown in New York and Philadelphia (December 2015 – April 2016) and was displayed in Dubai to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Syrian uprising (1,827 days and counting). In many ways, it has become a migrant in its own right; however, this weekend, Another Day Lost will be returning to the UK to be shown in Issam’s adopted hometown, Cambridge, for the first time, for one day only, two days before the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Then it will resume travelling, to Eastern Europe this time, as the twelfth edition will be poignantly exhibited in Budapest next month.

Top left: July 2015 Golborne Road (Lebanon) by Mathew Hodgkin.
Top right: July 2015 Central Books (Sulaymaniyah) by Issam Kourbaj.
Above: Dubai March 2016 matches by Elmer Magallanes.

Louisa Macmillan

Louisa Macmillan is an independent curator, writer and specialist in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art. She worked as a volunteer and curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum (2008–12). She has been working with Syrian-born, Cambridge-based artist Issam Kourbaj since 2013. Another Day Lost is their second project together.