Profile: Issam Kourbaj - Road from Damascus

Issam Kourbaj was mistaken for the Jackal by Russian guards and when he surfaced in Cambridge Andy Martin thought he was Cat Stevens. It turns out he is a remarkable Syrian artist, with pictures in the British Museum
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FIRST THERE was the black period. Then there was the blue period. Then there was the chewing gum. Now he has a paint-splattered ex-snooker hall in Cambridge and his pictures are in the British Museum.

But the turning point in Issam Kourbaj's artistic development probably took place in the Soviet Cultural Centre in Damascus in the summer of 1984. Issam was 20. He was acting caretaker. Now the Soviet Cultural Centre is a shambles, but then it was a huge creative maelstrom of ballet, cinema, chess, foreign languages, art. By night it was the in-place in downtown Damascus. But during the day it was closed. That's when Issam was nominally in charge. It wasn't exactly the most glamorous job in the world.

One day in July there was a ring at the door. It was a middle-aged man who spoke good Arabic with a pronounced Russian accent. He knew the Cultural Centre was closed but could he come in anyway? Issam thought he looked harmless enough so he let him in. The guy strolled around and checked out the pictures on the wall. ''Do you know who did these?'' he said. ''Well, I did,'' said Issam, who had talked the Cultural Centre into sticking up a few of his pictures. He forgot all about the incident until three months later, when he got a telephone call from that anonymous art-loving apparatchik, who turned out to be one of the most powerful men in Damascus. ''Would you like a scholarship to go to Moscow for a few years to study anything you like?'' he asked.

It was a miracle, the equivalent for a poor, struggling Syrian artist of a call from Spielberg. It was the right time for a messiah, since the army had decided the young Kourbaj was ripe, in fact overdue, for two years' military service. He had already spent a night in jail to give him the flavour of what lay in store. He had a choice between a Kalashnikov and a paintbrush. He went to Moscow.

It was his first time out of the country. He had been brought up in poverty in Soweda, which means ''black'' (and also some part of the heart). His black period, his first memories, belong to that town hewn out of volcanic rock, where a couple of thousand years before Romans used to go for their summer holidays and to drink the local wine. ''The Mountains of the Grape'', they were called: both were black. The whole town was black, not just dark but black. Now it is white. Issam went back there this year. ''It's been spoiled,'' he said. ''People have come back from abroad with lots of money and put down cement everywhere, with marble on top. It is the mask of marble.'' Now Soweda is black only in his memory.

The blue dates back to the wars of 1967 and '73. He remembers having blue all over his hands. It was a blue powder named ''Nile''. You mixed it with water and painted the windows with it. The idea was that enemy bombers would not notice this black town with blue windows perched on a white desert and would pass on. How it is that Issam Kourbaj was not bombed into oblivion is a mystery to me. But those colours were formative. That and the ceiling.

Although the walls of the house were of black stone, the roof was made out of bamboo covered with sand. Rainwater would pass through the sand to be absorbed by the bamboo poles and produce shifting patches of dampness. In those days there was no electricity in Soweda and they used kerosene lamps on the floor. The light of the lamp thrown against the ceiling would pick out and dramatise the damp patches and Issam the boy would tell stories about them: ''This one looks like a cloud'', ''That one looks like an octopus'', and so on. The next day the lamp would have been moved and there would be more stories to tell. He probably drove everyone crazy with those stories after a while. Now he finds those patches and patterns coming back in his pictures. ''I am seeing things I did not think I would remember,'' he says.

The first time I came across Issam Kourbaj (in the early 1990s) I didn't know he had all this wealth of impoverished experiences behind him. He put me in mind somewhat of the young Cat Stevens. I thought he was a hip dude who spent a lot of time on the beach and had the tan and the stubble to back it up. He had this sequence of pictures too, Wave 1, Wave 2, and Wave 3. There was probably some blue in there somewhere (maybe some black too, and a bundle of other colours), but there was no visible resemblance to a wave. No, you couldn't see the wave, but you could sense it. It was like looking at a wave from the inside. Generally speaking, gazing at pictures on walls is not my idea of a good time. But this wasn't a picture any more, it was more like surfing: you were deep in the tube, taking the pulse of the planet, hearing the Palaeolithic roar, and feeling the spit and the rush as you thrust out through the curtain. Or possibly not. Maybe it was more the aftermath of the worst wipeout imaginable. And these were your guts all over the canvas. Anyway, it was intense the way a 20 ft-plus wave at Waimea Bay is intense.

I already had a feeling that this was the man. And then I would run into him from time to time at Clowns cafe on King Street, Cam-bridge, where he would always drink espresso and ran an annual art competition for kids. I saw him in action one day at the Round Church (where he teaches a multi- national class for the Cambridge School of Art and Design) and he was telling one of his students to paint with her brush the wrong way round, without bristles: ''She already knows how to use the other end,'' he smiled serenely. But it wasn't until I saw the chairs hanging from the ceiling in Waterstones that I finally had to take my hat right off to genius.

I knew they could only be Issam's chairs. It wasn't just that in his characteristically inverted way, he had them sprouting out of the ceiling. Even if they had been on the floor no one in their right mind would have wanted to sit on them. He had smashed them up and nailed up the fragments to the roof, together with the odd snooker cue and bargepole, injecting these broken bones with a cocktail of Viagra and voluptuousness. Maybe there was some nostalgia for the patterns in the bamboo of Soweda. But Issam's idea is that these ex-chairs are some kind of representation of the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. He has this theory that ''chairs carry the imprint of human beings''.

There is a principle of economy at work here. Nothing is wasted. One of his latest grand-scale works, The Harbour - The Border, incorporates the shreds and patches of an old suede jacket of his (which was second- hand in the first place). If you look closely you can still see the button- holes.

The Gilgamesh theme goes back to his Russian period (deeply anti-academic, subverting his natural draughtsmanship, juxtaposing nipples and snow in It Was Hot in Cold St Petersburg, 1990). Four days after arriving in Moscow he was just settling into this almost familiar land of Dostoevsky and Gogol when he was suddenly ordered off to Baku. ''Go to Baku,'' they said. He had no idea where Baku was at this point, except that he had a sick suspicion it was somewhere around the Baku of beyond. He was put on a train with two Peruvian women (he'd never heard of Peru either) and the train steamed off into the unknown. Three days, a crash course in Spanish, and a lot of weak Russian tea later, he alighted in the capital of Azerbaijan, then a Soviet province. It was, he thought, ''like landing in outer space. Not landing - floating. I knew nothing, I recognised nothing, not a smell, not a colour. Everything was shocking. I was even shocked by the tea. I was especially shocked by the tea.''

In Syria he is invisible. ''I don't have any mirror to see myself.'' But suddenly he is the most conspicuous man in Baku. Everyone looked at him. He took him most of the year he spent there to figure out quite why. Azerbaijanis, having lost their Arabic and had Russian imposed on them, were looking for their roots. Issam was perceived as a living, walking root. He wasn't Syrian, he was Assyrian, he looked exactly like one of the classic Mesopotamian kings, Nebuchadnezzar maybe (he had a long beard at the time and a chiselled profile). ''I was like a piece of the museum. I looked to them as if I had just come to life and walked out. I was their history, their lost culture. They used to bring me old Arabic books of theirs - which they could no longer understand - to translate.'' It is sometimes said the Rolling Stones were responsible for the downfall of the Soviet Empire. I say Issam Kourbaj had a hand in it too. He was a Gorbachev among artists.

One way and another Issam has spent a fair chunk of his life on trains. He used to commute from St Petersburg to London by train. It was never going to be a fast train anyway, but it was made a lot slower by virtue of having Issam on board. At every frontier he would be ritually hauled off for interrogation, with every border guard secretly praying he had personally arrested the Jackal, and then - reluctantly - having to let the usual suspect go again. ''I felt bad about holding everyone up,'' Issam said. Issam used to turn these long journeys to good effect. On one he taught himself to construct the minute roll-your-own cigarettes which are his trademark (he was too broke to buy a packet). On another, from Florence to Milan, he produced a bunch of sketches - of whatever was framed in the train window at the time - which have since been acquired by the British Museum and placed in the Department of Prints and Drawings along with Rachel Whiteread and Anthony Gormley. He likes to do things very fast, in a minute or less than a minute, freezing haiku-sized packets of shimmering sense-data.

I fear that Issam Kourbaj is in danger of becoming respectable - he is being bought by colleges, for God's sake. He was taught by Moudarres, who was a friend and co-exhibitor of Picasso. He has his pictures hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. I just hope success doesn't ruin him. I loved his stuff when he was just hanging out on the beach.

In fact he still hangs out on the beach. His latest batch of pictures came out of a spell in St Ives. But all his old Dionysian swirls and splashes and blobs have given way to these muscular quasi-rectangular forms - houses seen from above, windows, or just plain old quasi-rectangular forms? - with an uncanny effect of depth and density, as if they were geological or architectural phenomena (Mountain, Village). There are no more empty spaces and paradoxically, with every layer - every stratum - of paint he slaps on, he seems to be digging something up, scrubbing something clean. This is not art: this is archaeology. His most recent works look as if they have always been there, ancient and buried, you just couldn't see them, and all he has done is reveal them to the gaze.

I accidentally trod on one of the sketches that he had scattered over his studio floor and imprinted a massive Timberland boot across it. ''Don't worry,'' he said, eyeing my signature appreciatively, ''it'll add to the texture.'' This is a man who does more than pay lip-service to the conventional wisdom that the viewer should collaborate in the making of the picture. He had me feeling that I and my big boots had some kind of hidden artistic flair after all.

He has even been to the beach in Cuba. He had to get out of Havana, which was too tragic and wasted, so on his last day he went to the beach, which is an hour out of town, beyond the derelict oil pumps. But that was even more tragic, it turned out. If you're Cuban you can't even get on the beach. To be allowed on the beach you have to have bucks, and plenty of them. Which led him to his fundamental insight that the world is divided into two groups of people: there are those who are allowed on the beach, and there are those who are not allowed on the beach. And even while Issam was on the beach he was thinking of the people who were not allowed on the beach. Hence the persistent political echoes in his work.

Add to all that the religious dimension. There isn't one. Or there is and there isn't. Issam is neither Christian nor Muslim, but Druze, brought up in a religion whose defining belief is that believers are not allowed to believe anything till the age of 40. Then they get to read this book called Wisdom, and they can make their own minds up. "I'm still too young for wisdom," he told me one day in Clowns. He's 35. There is a disarming modesty to Kourbaj's art. Almost a shyness. His ultimate ambition is for people not to notice his work. It's designed to blend into the landscape whence it came, to return to its origins and vanish, as if those Israeli bandits were still at 12 o'clock. He no longer signs his work: his signature is the absence of a signature. When we were leaving his studio he closed the door and then realized there were still a few things - his rugged Postcards from Cuba with their desperate, fugitive scraps of Miami-bound furniture - sitting out in the driveway, accessible to all. ''They cannot be stolen,'' he said. ''They are like this wall, like those chimneys over there. No one will see them.''

I almost forgot about the chewing gum. He had to go out to work aged 10, selling chewing gum and sweets from an old cinema usherette's tray slung round his neck. Then a barber asked him if he could paint a couple of words - ''Barber Shop'' or something in Arabic - on the window. Calligraphy is a big deal in Syria, painting the complex script on shops, buses, billboards. He said he could. And so he was paid for his first work of art. With a haircut. !

A collection of sketches by Issam Kourbaj and Fateh Moudarres (b 1922) are on show at the Round Church Studio, which is not at the Round Church but at 1a Albert Street (off Chesterton Road), Cambridge, 11am-5pm, 15, 21, 22, 28 and 29 November