New exhibit at Greenwich Academy to focus on Syria, refugees
GREENWICH — Mohamad Hafez’s New Haven art studio is a cabinet of curiosities.
Bottle caps and door ornaments litter tables and doors in organized chaos. Hafez gathers up a roofing nail with small spikes; in his hands, it looks tiny and innocent.
At the right scale, he said, it can mimic a mortar shell.
These days, Hafez is no stranger to the spotlight -- he was the subject of a New Yorker profile in April, which some would say is a sign that he has officially made it as an artist. But what is now nationally recognized sculpture was once a hobby to stem homesickness.
Born in Damascus in 1984, Hafez’s story is one of tragedy, resilience and ingenuity.
He moved to the U.S. in 2003 to attend college, and as a student, he sat in an architecture studio at Iowa State University crafting models of his homeland as temporary escapism.
Because of visa restrictions connected to President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 National Security Entry-Exit Registration System -- which targeted men 16 and older from 25 countries, all but one of which were Muslim-majority -- Hafez was unable to return to Syria until 2011, eight years after his original move.
“The travel ban as we know it today did exist back then,” Hafez said. “A lot of people did not know it, because it wasn’t called the travel ban.”
When Hafez finally did go back to Damascus, what was supposed to be a short trip turned into a nearly seven-week stay because of a complicated re-entry process. While Hafez waited for his paperwork to go through so he could return to the U.S., he walked the city streets for hours, taking photos and mental notes of its nooks and crannies.
Life from afar had made him realize the gems in his own culture that he hadn’t paid attention to as a teenager, he said, and he wanted to soak them in before leaving again.
“When you go back, you see them,” he continued. “They’ve always been there. You just, you notice them.”
Soon after his visit, Syria descended into civil strife, and Hafez was personally affected. His parents fled to Dubai and his sister and brother-in-law to Sweden during a bloody war that has killed 400,000 people since its inception in 2011.
As more and more death and destruction wreaked havoc on his home, what had once been a passion project became a mission for Hafez. Some of the now-famous photos from the war — 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s limp corpse washed ashore from the Mediterranean, for example — have made their way onto his studio walls for motivation.
In his New Haven workrooms, the guts from deconstructed radios wait to be incorporated into Hafez’s cityscapes. Before he became an architect, Hafez studied electrical engineering. His work combines the creativity of an artist with the detailed science of someone who understands not only how to craft, but also how to build.
Among the oddities in his collection, one bucket stands out, chock full of stones chopped into perfect cubes. After Hafez moved to the United States, his parents sent them from their business in Damascus; now, the leftovers are the only testament to what was once a successful company.
Hafez tries to incorporate the stones into his sculptures so there’s a little piece of home in each one, he said.
When Kristen Erickson, who curates Greenwich Academy’s art exhibitions, saw Hafez featured in Connecticut Magazine nearly a year ago, she was enticed by the work.
“I think we’re at a time when there’s a lot of misunderstanding of Islam, and there’s a lot of fear of immigrants and migrants, so I really thought his art was a way into that dialogue,” Erickson said.
Hafez was invited to show his dioramas at the school and talk with students about his life, his inspiration and his art.
“We experience diversity in many forms but often don’t come into contact with many Muslim people in Greenwich,” Erickson said.
When he goes to Greenwich Academy to speak with students, Hafez will arrive as “a Muslim, Syrian, Arab artist,” he said. But soon, he added, he will also be “a crazy, funny guy that went to Disneyworld and Disneyland.”
“Homeland InSecurity,” his exhibition, will appear at the school’s Luchsinger Gallery in Wallace Performing Arts Center through Dec. 12, with an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 11.
Hafex insists his art is not political in a superficial sense. It does not decry the Bashar al-Assad administration, nor does it bolster any side of the fighting. That’s not the point.
His latest series is not even confined to Syria, concentrating more generally on displacement.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 22.5 million of whom are considered refugees. Some 5.5 million of them are from Syria, but another 1.4 million come from Sudan, and another 2.5 million from Afghanistan.
“These are not refugee problems,” Hafez said. “These are human problems.”
For his new work, Hafez has placed dioramas inside of suitcases, each accompanied by audio to tell a refugee’s story. Only two tales come from Syria; the other eight are about displaced people from Afghanistan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, among other countries.
The connecting tissue: Everyone has been forced to leave home.
“It is part of the story,” Hafez said. “It is not the end of the story. Most of these people that we’ve talked to are fantastic people that are living, and giving back, and building, and contributing to their civic host societies.”
One of the suitcases is about an Afghani refugee who is now a local professor. Before moving to the U.S., she spent time in Iran, where at 22 years old she ran an underground school for 300 Afghani children who weren’t allowed to attend Iranian academies because they were undocumented.
Hafez said her example counters the predominant narrative of the constricted lives hijab-wearing women lead.
“The contrast is rather sharp,” he said. “I’m hoping by sharing people’s stories that we can resurrect a little bit of humanity.”
Though most of the suitcase pieces concentrate on refugee experiences from the New Haven area, at Greenwich Academy, Hafez will display a sculpture inspired by an AFP photo that went viral this year. In it, Aleppo resident Mohammed Mohiedin Anis sits cross-legged on his bed. He listens to a record while smoking his pipe.
“The bedsheets are still on the bed, but everything is bombed out,” Hafez said.
In Syria, Anis is known for his vintage American auto collection, which included a 1957 Mercury Montclair and a 1949 Hudson Commodore, according to PBS.
After the intense fighting and bombings that took place last December as the Assad government retook Aleppo, the cars were totaled.
Despite his old age, Anis insisted to photographers that he would fix them all.
“It’s amazing, the resiliency in the human spirit,” Hafez said. “That is something I’d like to talk about in art.”
For Hafez, the purpose of his work is “defining the common denominator among humans.”
That said, he also uses sculpture to educate people about Islam and challenge stereotypes that prevail in Western society.
In the West, the Middle East -- and the fewer than 1 percent of Muslims who practice a radicalized version of Islam called Salafism -- tend to dominate the news cycle.
But the largest Muslim-majority country is actually Indonesia, in Southeast Asia, which, according to Pew Research Center, has a Muslim population of more than 200 million, he pointed out.
Hafez said that viewing all of a religion’s followers based on its few “wackos” does not make for a healthy jumping off point when trying to foster a dialogue between two cultures.
“Any statement about any 1.6 billion is an ignorant statement,” he added, laughing.
Similarly, Hafez tries to put a magnifying glass on Western moralities that tend to victimize Muslim womanhood, teaching onlookers about Islam all the while.
In one of his pieces, “Why Have You Forsaken Us?” Hafez depicts a woman praying, her hair covered. Only when the viewer rotates the piece does he notice that the figurine is not Muslim, but a rendering of the Virgin Mary.
“Does Mother Mary need saving from her headscarf?” Hafez asked. “These are the kinds of conversations I’d like to have with people.”
Hafez acknowledged that the U.S. is deeply divided right now, and he is trying to figure out how to circumnavigate those polarities through his art.
“You don’t know what you don’t know unless you learn about something,” Hafez said. “I can’t change the world, but I can do my fair bit.... People change when you relate to the human experience.”