Mohamad Hafez’s miniatures humanize the refugee’s search for a better life, and make real the nostalgia for home and the horror of war
For 12 years, Mohamad Hafez, a Syrian-born corporate architect working in the USA, lived something of a double life. By day, he worked for an international firm in Connecticut designing skyscrapers. But after hours, he worked secretly to create painstakingly assembled assemblages of miniature city fragments inspired by memories of his homeland before the Syrian War began in 2011.
It was, he freely admits, a form of therapy to deal with his own emotional baggage as he grappled with painful feelings of homesickness for Damascus, where he spent four years as a teenager after growing up mainly in Saudi Arabia. He has only been able to return once since he left to study architecture in America in 2003 on a single-entry visa.
His intricate artworks also gave him a creative outlet away from the competitive world of high-rise architecture, where there was, he says, not much room for emotional drama.
‘This was my escape, my way of calming down and dealing with my homesickness,’ says Hafez, adding that in this way he was able to channel those feelings to generate creativity.
Eventually he went public with his work, exploring the experience of refugees in his Unpacked: Refugee Baggage series of artworks that were created in open suitcases and exhibited widely across the US. Three years ago, he took an open-ended break from high-rise architecture to spend more time on his artwork and other new ventures. He was recently the subject of A Broken House, an Oscar-shortlisted short documentary directed by Jimmy Goldblum.
Hafez’s first solo show in the UK, Journeys From An Absent Present to a Lost Past, has just opened at the Fabrica gallery in Brighton as part of the annual Brighton Festival. Meeting him at the gallery ahead of the show opening, he is engaging, enthusiastic and very much on a personal mission to highlight both his homeland’s cultural heritage and the experience of the refugee.
The show is divided into two parts – the nostalgic Damascus streetscapes of the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of what happens when normal life stops as people become refugees. Here, graffiti about refugees is sprayed on walls and onto black cellophane wrapped around gallery pillars, while in the gallery window, an installation of lifejackets is a reminder of the treacherous journeys made by many in the hope of finding a new life. One piece straddles both – a weapon-like suspended object, each of its ends an explosion of city fragments, one evoking the before, the other the aftermath of war.
‘Homes have been demolished, and are gone. And all that is left is emotional baggage,’ he says.
His assemblages are mesmerising. Ornately framed, each sculpture depicts a mash-up of common building forms, some with minarets and domes, but mostly everyday buildings with doors, mashrabiya screens, satellite dishes, washing lines, and each with a model car typical of the styles he remembers from his time in Damascus. Each piece is meticulously built by Hafez using a combination of both conventional building materials and found objects –a perfume bottle upturned becomes the perfect dome, while components from old radios are reappropriated as building parts such as air-conditioning units. Look closely and you may spot the odd dangly earring or brooch employed in the furnishings. Somehow, helped by painstakingly painted details including Qur’anic verses and a deft selection of materials, all these oddments are blended into the Syrian buildings of his memory, their raw, broken edges suggestive of the destruction that was to come.
Some of the sculptures have soundscapes – car horns, calls to prayer, the hustle and bustle of everyday life – recorded by Hafez on his one visit back to Syria in 2011, when he was there for six weeks waiting for the right visa to take him back to America.
‘I was living in pure heaven, walking around witnessing daily activities,’ he recalls, adding that he did so with a fresh set of eyes after learning more about his country and its architecture while studying and working in the West.
It’s hard to see him returning to the corporate architectural world – after all, he says, he’s ‘been there, done that, bought the t-shirt’ and is clearly on another path now.
As he points out, there are plenty of other architects who can design skyscrapers, but as an architect at ease with both his Syrian Muslim and American identities, he is in a rare position to ‘speak to both sides’ and ‘build bridges in highly divided, xenophobic times. I heavily believe in that sense of responsibility.’
With this in mind, in addition to his art exhibitions, he has been busy on a number of new ventures. He is setting up a new ‘social’ practice of architecture and is also working with museums and universities to make models of notable, often now lost, buildings from Syria and the wider Middle East with the help of archaeological archives. These are then displayed in installations in the institutions. He has also led workshops with students exploring notions of home.
In lockdown, he designed and opened the Pistachio Café in New Haven, a coffee shop that aims to promote empathy and commonality between cultures with the help, says Hafez, of the perfect recipe of food, drink, hospitality and good design.
‘I always wanted a cultural salon where I could host and build bridges…It looks like my art work blown up to actual scale. It’s a place where we welcome everyone,’ he says.
In particular, he is keen to humanise perceptions of refugees and tell their stories, challenging the idea held by some that refugees didn’t have established, civilised lives that they’d left behind.
‘When you see your own family members in a refugee camp, you can’t help think “I could have been that person”,’ he says.
Hafez’s inclusion in the Brighton Festival was proposed by co-guest festival director Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni. The two are in conversation on May 18 at 18.30 at Fabrica.
Journeys From an Absent Present to a Lost Past – Mohamad Hafez, until Sunday 29 May 2022, Fabrica, Brighton, as part of Brighton Festival (May 7-29)