Mohamad Hafez: On the Scale of Grief and Memory
By Daria Lugina
A Syrian-American who currently lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut, Mohamad Hafez spends his workweek designing skyscrapers. During weekends and evenings in his studio, he painstakingly recreates Syrian architecture in miniature format.
He began building models in 2003 as an international student studying in the US. Faced with the travel restrictions of the post-9/11 world, he could not return to his home country with his single entry visa. Instead, making use of his architectural training, he started putting found objects and scrap material together into Syrian streetscapes to keep the homesickness at bay.
When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, Hafez’s project suddenly acquired a much more dire and complex subject matter. As a harrowing video posted on his website attests, soon the structures he was constructing no longer existed anywhere but in the memories of the people who once inhabited those spaces.
Keenly aware of this, Hafez began to develop and shift his artistic practice. He sought to grapple with this new reality. His current sculptures are both melancholy and surreal. They mix nostalgia and grief, sometimes representing facades as they once were, beautiful and detailed. Sometimes the structures represent how the city may be now: abandoned, covered with dust, and destroyed by war. His work is a testament to an obvious, viscerally striking fact: these are spaces that were loved; these are spaces where lives were lived; worlds were built and then were lost. The impossibility of preserving the past is key to the work itself. At first glance his works seem to be immaculate reconstructions. In fact, in interviews Hafez often minimizes the relevance of the artist’s hand in the process, comparing what he is doing to “3-D printing what’s inside of me.” Yet, the illusionism of his work is on full display. These sculptures are not bringing Syria back.
Looking closely at the pieces you begin to notice the found materials Hafez used to put them together. The folded laundry strung out across many of his scenes turns out to be pieces of masking tape folded over wire. One can spot bits of ceramic, wire coils, cut fabric, and old toys, repurposed to bring some verisimilitude to the scenes. However, the more one looks at the works, the more they seem incongruous with reality. The scale of the scene begins to confuse. A fragment of a plate alludes to a past purpose on the human scale. It also seems to be on the verge of becoming a monstrosity next to the carefully miniaturized cityscape. The dried flowers and branches worked into some of his pieces exist in a similar duality. Delicate and fragile in real life, within the landscape of Hafez’s world, they become brambles, bushes, and dangerous terrain.
The instability within these works comes to the forefront most clearly in the framing devices that Hafez employs throughout his work. He places many of his interiors within suitcases, some donated by families of those who had fled the Holocaust, drawing attention to the larger history of refugee movements. Within these suitcases he recreates interiors, often inspired by the stories of particular refugees. In one piece he recreates the living room of his own mother’s old house. The pieces draw upon both the “politics and personal losses of compulsory departure.” The ways in which the beat-up, hefty suitcases dwarf the miniatures emphasize the fragility of what Hafez depicts. The pieces speak of the hardship and violence that those carrying nothing but suitcases and memories face on their journeys away from home. These works highlight how little the refugees have, and how quickly even that can disappear; a suitcase snapping shut would erase all that Hafez has built and all the memories that are left.
In other works Hafez explores the painful persistence of these memories. He mounts some of his pieces onto ornate mirrors. The Victorian era pattern of the frame used to be popular in Syria. Hafez says of these sculptures: “You look in a mirror and you expect to see your reflection in it … But for me, I don’t see my reflection. I cannot escape my memories. I cannot escape my nostalgia and homesickness. And so what I see reflected in the mirror is these thoughts.”
The pattern of the mirror swirls and snakes around intact facades, seemingly peaceful. However, there is also a sense of foreboding. Security cameras lurk among the architecture. A car parked in front alludes to the vehicles of the Secret Service. Inspired by Hafez’s last visit to his homeland, these images draw upon his memory of Syria right before the country plunged into war. A liminal moment, it turns surprisingly persistent, following one around like a shadow or a reflection in a mirror.
In his most recent pieces, Hafez places his constructions within gilded frames, the kind one may encounter in a fine arts museum framing a canvas by an Old Master. He fits his usual motifs – the carefully detailed exteriors, the hung fabric, the parked cars – within the strict rectangular format of traditional western art. These pieces raise most explicitly the uncertainty of the premise that pervades much of Hafez’s work. Especially since his work has been gaining attention and popularity – with several features in high profile publications (The New Yorker, The Guardian) and group and solo shows at more and more prestigious venues (Yale Law School, The Brooklyn Museum) – it seems increasingly telling that the work’s contradictions and unresolved ethical dilemmas are part of the work itself. Hafez seems to ask in these pieces: What does it mean for an audience to find these creations beautiful? What does it mean to have them displayed in artistic institutions and lauded in cultural publications, particularly Western ones? What can and cannot this kind of project accomplish -- and for whom?
In an interview in The New Yorker, Hafez explains the driving force behind this work: “How do you watch thousands of years bombed out of existence? How do you go on with your life, having your morning coffee, when a bunch of your relatives and friends are under constant bombing? How do you not snap and yell out? You have to remain composed and carry on with your day job, don’t you? …. The way that I stayed composed is that I came here [to my studio] and I let the models do the yelling for me.”
Created with love, and in pain, Hafez sculptures test the limits and possibilities of what art can do in the face of such loss and destruction.