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Issam Kourbaj and the Children of Niobe

In Conversation With is a new weekly series where we ask friends of the Museum to tell us about their favourite object – and what it means to them.


Issam Kourbaj is one of Cambridge’s leading artists. Born in Syria, he has exhibited his work in locations across the globe, including in the British Museum. Recently, he has also collaborated with Classicist and poet, Ruth Padel.

Issam's exhibition, Lost, was hosted at MOCA in 2017. Here, he remembers his show and how the Children of Niobe spoke to him.


A Syrian man stands mournfully looking at a sculpture of reclining young man
Issam responds to our cast of one of the Children of Niobe. In the background are 'Polaroids', by Loukas Morley (copyright: the artist), which was exhibited in the exhibition The Silence of Time (2019)


'In 2017, to mark the 6th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, I installed Lost, seven repurposed items of clothing dipped in plaster, as gravestones, with the word “unknown” written on them in Arabic and Greek. They were placed at different locations within the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

'This art intervention aimed to facilitate a conversation between the idealised Greek and Roman bodies in the Cast Gallery and my plasters.

'One of these locations was next to the casts of the Children of Niobe, where I wanted the tragedy of Niobe and her children to speak to the tragedy of Syria and her many starved, petrified and slaughtered children across millennia, giving body and voice to these human tragedies that continue to repeat without end.'


the same sculpture of a reclining naked young man, with plaster clothes hanging above
In his exhibition, Lost, at MOCA in 2017, Issam hung one of his casts of refugee clothing next to the Son of Niobe. (Copyright: the artist; photograph: MOCA)


Want to see the Children of Niobe yourself? Issam's favourite casts can be found in Bay C.

Want to know more about the Children of Niobe and our casts? Check out our research catalogue.


More In Conversation With


The top image above includes an exhibition work by local Cambridge artist, Loukas Morley, which was shown in the Museum of Classical Archaeology in the summer of 2019 in the exhibition, The Silence of Time. The second image includes an exhibition work by Issam himself, which was shown in MOCA in the winter of 2017 in the exhibition, Lost. In both cases, copyright of the artworks shown belongs to the artist.

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Every cast tells two stories.
One ancient. One modern.

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