Scaling the Dark: Seeds, Sands, Moons
On display from 28 May 2021

Fleeing the Dark

On May 28, the museum will open the intervention Fleeing the Dark by Issam Kourbaj. The Syrian born artist uses his own artworks in combination with objects from the museum collections to reflect on the crisis in Syria. The intervention marks ten years since the beginning of the crisis.

4381 Boats in the Lichthal

Kourbaj created his installation Scaling the Dark: seeds, sands, moons especially for the monumental Lichthal in the museum. The installation of 4381 miniature boats extends diagonally across the hall and counts the number of days, weeks and months since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. Each boat for the number of days contains a seed, which symbolizes renewal and growth. With this, the artist shows that even in the darkest of times, growth and hope are still possible. 

The BBC podcast “A History of the World in 100 Objects” recently named Kourbaj’s installation of miniature boats the 101st object for its unique ability to encapsulate the past decade. 

Issam Kourbaj, Scaling the Dark: Seeds, Sands, Moons (2021)
Issam Kourbaj, Scaling the Dark: Seeds, Sands, Moons (2021)

Migration, growth and hope

Most of the museum objects on display come from Syria and deal with themes related to the conflict that is taking place there. Some of them are very personal to Kourbaj’s own story. Yet the exhibition reaches beyond personal or political boundaries to more universal themes such as migration, growth and hope. A toy car made of recycled materials from the Libyan desert stands in for all of our childhoods and a door from Aleppo symbolizes a universal longing for home.

Issam Kourbaj, The Breadline is the Frontline (2021)

Seeds and Plants

Because of his interest in growth, dispersion, and movement, you will encounter seeds and plants throughout the intervention. For example, the rare 16th-century Rauwolf Herbarium, on loan from Naturalis in Leiden, is full of various medicinal and useful plants from Syria and is on display for the first time in Amsterdam.

On the terrace of the café De Tropen, we worked together with the Royal Tropical Institute to grow edible plants from Syria, such as chick peas and wheat. The seeds were donated by ICARDA, and we hope to bake bread from the harvest.

Roemeria hybrida (Poppy flower) from the Rauwolf Herbarium
Roemeria hybrida (violet-horned poppy flower) uit het Rauwolf Herbarium, 1574 – 1576, verzameld in Syrië. Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden.

Interesting combinations

What can a simple drawing on a bowl from Aleppo tell us about our human journey in a time when we are forced to live apart? This drawing about the life of a plant was the spark that inspired the entire intervention and gave Kourbaj the idea to combine his own artworks with objects from the museum. 

Schaal uit Aleppo
Schaal, Aleppo, voor 1963. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, TM-3317-19.

About Issam Kourbaj

Issam Kourbaj comes from a background of fine art, architecture and theatre design. He was born in Syria and trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts & Architecture in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and at Wimbledon School of Art (London). Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, eventually becoming an Artist in Residence at Christ’s College, a Bye-Fellow (2007-2011) and a Lector in Art.

Issam Kourbaj
Issam Kourbaj, picture by: Mourad Kourbaj

Performance March 15th

March 15th, exactly 10 years after the start of the crisis, Issam Kourbaj gave a drawing and sound performance together with composer Richard Causton and soprano Jessica Summers. Watch this unique performance here. This is a collaboration with Kettle's Yard, The Heong Gallery and The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Discover more

Tropenmuseum, exhibition, Aleppo
4 March 2018


A city that has been in the news almost continuously for many months now because of the war raging there.