September 24, 2017

Iraqi and Syrian ‘Cultures in the Crossfire’ at Philadelphia exhibit

Vast in mandate. Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj (L) speaks with a visitor about his “art intervention” in the Penn Museum’s new exhibition. (Public relations office at the Penn Museum )

Philadelphia - “Cultures in the Cross­fire: Stories from Syria and Iraq,” an exhibit at the Penn Museum in Philadel­phia, depresses, informs and in­spires everyone who visits.

The exhibition, on view through November 2018, includes more than 50 objects from the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeological museum and libraries and seven art installations or “art interventions,” by Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj.

The exhibit, created in conjunc­tion with the Penn Cultural Herit­age Centre (PennCHC), is small in scale but vast in mandate. Com­binations of old objects and new art highlight historic and current devastation and human suffer­ing; cultural wealth preserved, threatened or lost; and valiant ef­forts to salvage tangible and intangible heritage.

Never before has the museum paired treasures from its collections with modern art. The result is stun­ning in an emotional, almost physi­cal, way.

“One of the reasons we did this exhibit was because the Penn Mu­seum has had a long history of working in the Middle East,” said Lauren Ristvet, a Penn archaeolo­gist who started digging in Syria in 1999. “Our museum was founded because of excavations we did in Nippur in the 1880s. That was the first moment when Americans did archaeology internationally. So we have really close ties to Syria and Iraq. My co-curator, Salam al-Kun­tar, is Syrian. This is a very personal show.”

Kourbaj, who teaches at the Uni­versity of Cambridge, joined the team in September 2016. He, Ristvet and Kuntar planned every detail, down to the colour of walls behind each display. The show opened in April.

It begins with three haunting vid­eos of the destruction of Al-Omari Mosque in Daraa, the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah in Nineveh and the destruction of the 3,000-year-old Assyrian North-west Palace of Nim­rud.

Visitors proceed — after regain­ing their composure — through four sections. To show the cultural and religious diversity of Syria and Iraq across the millennia, the first section, titled “Lives,” features funerary portraits of rich people in Palmyra. The second section, “Knowledges,” presents cuneiform tablets, including a lament for the destruction of Sumer and Ur in 1800BC. The section includes rotat­ing displays of manuscripts from the Islamic period. “Daily Lives” showcases rattles, a Roman-period ladle and a Kurdish doll from the 19th century. “Movement” includes two ivory figures from Nimrud that were probably carved by Syrians deported to Iraq in Assyrian times. The exhibit ends with objects from Aleppo.

But the show does not end. Visi­tors must circle back. All along, they have seen another exhibit, perhaps three others, simultaneously. Kour­baj’s installations and pairings with older pieces drive home the ex­periences of present-day Syrians. Above a Hebrew tombstone from Anbar in “Lives,” there are flattened t-shirts Kourbaj dipped in plaster. On each one, he recorded informa­tion, in Greek and Arabic, about an unknown child who drowned crossing the Aegean seeking asy­lum in Europe.

“My pieces are tombstones made of clothing,” Kourbaj said. “I was in the classical archaeological muse­um in Cambridge, looking at hollow plasters of beautiful bodies from Greek and Roman civilisations. I thought it would be nice to do something related, with the cloth­ing of refugees. When I saw the He­brew tombstone, I thought it would be interesting to link Mediterranean civilisations. The [shirts] are almost like angels floating in the air.”

For “Homeland: An Excavation,” he covered a desk with his expired Syrian passport, a jumble of stamps and inkpads and an essay under the same title. He said he was inspired by a lapis cylinder seal from Ur on which goats and antelope roam freely — unlike Syrians and Iraqis now.

In “Don’t Wash Your Hands,” a bar of Aleppo soap, a chipped porcelain sink and a mirror, command the de­parting visitor not to forget the city, not to walk away from the tragedy of Syria and Iraq. “The world is ach­ing everywhere and we should not wash out hands,” Kourbaj said.

By circling through the exhibit a third or fourth time, visitors learn how PennCHC has remembered both countries. It provides re­sources to Syrians and Iraqis to help them protect sites, artefacts and traditions without coming into dan­ger or calling attention to treasures some may want to destroy.

Using low-tech means, such as sandbags, Syrians saved artwork of the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum. The Hekayya Heritage Initiative sup­ports internally displaced Syrians who have taken refuge in the Dead Cities. Women produce traditional handicrafts for income and chil­dren learn about their history in school and through excavations.

“The ruins can provide building material,” Ristvet said. “It’s easy to take stone from an old house and build a new one. That’s not neces­sarily bad. We want to give people a sense that where they are living is important, so they won’t bulldoze an ancient church but perhaps con­vert it into a house.”

After all, as Kourbaj posted on an exhibit panel: “In difficult times, human life always finds a way to grow.”