Exhibit of tiny makeshift boats symbolizes plight of Syrian refugees

The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has invited the public to help craft 2,379 toy boats for launching in the large fountain in the museum’s stone plaza.

That number represent the days since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The art installation, “Dark Waters,” is meant to remind people of the damage from that ongoing conflict in which more than 400,000 people have died.

On Friday afternoon, Issam Kourbaj arrived to show the staff of the Penn Museum the crude origami of folding a boat out of a sheet of tin foil. His fingers were crusted white as he dripped wet plaster into the delicate boats to act as a ballast.

Kourbaj was born in the southern part of Syria, and now teaches art at the University of Cambridge in England. Even jet-lagged from a trans-Atlantic flight, he was gregarious and generous as he prepared to engage the public in an art installation.

“Sorry, I’m not making sense of myself,” he laughed, in response to a reporter’s questions. “My faculties are not yet awake.”

For the last several years, his art practice has focused entirely on the conflict in Syria.

“There is something very urgent in my landscape — my inner landscape,” he said. “My country is being destroyed. I feel this is what I need to do.”

Inside the museum, Kourbaj created several installation pieces to accompany the Middle Eastern artifacts exhibited in “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq.” Museum officials wanted to juxtapose the ancient objects with contemporary art, to underline that region’s cultural in the military conflict.

One of his installation pieces consists of a series of boats made from discarded bicycle mudflaps, populated with burned matches clustered together. He was inspired by toy boats made in 500 BCE, when people in what is now Syria carved goddesses and set them afloat in the Mediterranean Sea.

However, his toy boats made of hammered steel recall the dangerously makeshift vessels thousands of Syrian refugees have used to escape the country.

“The only way out is to find any solution — any dinghy — to emigrate. Many families did not make it,” he said. “This tragedy should not happen in 21st century. My duty as an artist is to draw attention to this tragedy.”

This weekend’s public art installation is meant to draw many people into the spirit of his artwork.

“People need to help me,” said Kourbaj. “We all need to be aware of the tragedy of Syria.”

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