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Suitcase stories

Mohamad Hafez’s sculptures mourn the loss of home and heritage

LOST Sep-Oct 2019

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Mohamad Hafez’s fate, it seems, is to be far from home.

Mohamad Hafez in his studio.
Photo by Cole Wilson

The sculptor and architect came to the United States from Syria in 2003 on a single-entry visa to attend college. Travel restrictions after September 11 kept him from returning. He made it home only once before the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.

To stay connected, he conjures home in his artwork: intricate miniatures of Damascene buildings. He made his first model while studying architecture at Northern Illinois University.

“I started doing it out of homesickness,” he says. “I just started slapping things together one night. It took eight or nine hours. I looked at my watch, and it was 3 a.m.”

It was the façade of an old Damascene house. In early pieces, Hafez savored the palimpsest of the ancient city. “It’s millennia-old architecture, with the footprint of many generations,” he says. “A window might be from the Ottoman period, 1,200 years old. People still put a new AC in.

But the work was personal, too: “I was longing for a particular corner where I’d had coffee or played with toys,” Hafez says.

Damascene Athan Series.
Photography by Alex Olevitch

Hafez is now 35 and an architect with Pickard Chilton in New Haven, Connecticut. He designs sleek corporate skyscrapers, a sharp contrast to the sculptures of crumbling old buildings he fashions in his orderly, jam-packed studio, where found objects fill ceiling-high shelves. They will adorn his miniature worlds: an electronic tangle of plastic and circuitry becomes a chandelier; twine functions as a laundry line.

News photos and images of Damascus cover the studio walls. Incense burns, Arab music plays softly. Water burbles in a small fountain beneath the window. Hafez serves Syrian coffee and Turkish delight to a visitor. “This studio—the smells, the audio, the flowers—the sensory, is made to transport you to a different time and place,” he says.

But it’s the artwork, not the studio, that the artist calls “my cocoon.” Making art is therapy for him. For years, he did not exhibit. He just made sculptures to stay in touch with home. He finally returned to Damascus in early 2011, when Pickard Chilton asked him to lead a project in Beirut.

“Ninety minutes away! But I’m a Syrian citizen. I had to go through the American embassy in Damascus, and I got stuck there for a month and a half,” Hafez says. “Going back as an architect, I saw things through a different lens.”

As a teenager, he had had a similar eye-opening homecoming when his family returned after living in Saudi Arabia for several years. He set about exploring. “I was searching for my roots,” he says. “I was walking through the streets seeing the diversity in the architecture. Mosques next to churches next to temples. Everybody living together. I thought, ‘This is who I am. This is us.’”

His visit in early 2011 was more bittersweet. He visited with family. Thinking he might not come home again soon, he wandered the city making audio recordings: calls to prayer, birdsong, children playing, church bells.

Weeks later, when he was back in New Haven, everything changed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad squelched dissident protests in Damascus and Aleppo, and the war began. Hafez was in shock. For a time, he says, “I didn’t pick up a pencil. I internalized the war and the trauma.”

But his model making had been therapy before. Now, it was a way to grapple with the violence and devastation. “I was gushing three-dimensionally,” Hafez says. “I wanted the pieces to yell out on my behalf.”

By now he had lost count of how many sculptures he’d made, more elaborate than dollhouses, filled with tiny imprints of a culture and a society now under siege. He began to wonder if his art had more than a personal purpose.

I wanted the pieces to yell out on my behalf.

Mohamad Hafez

“Friends kicked me out the door,” he says. “They said, ‘You have to talk about this. You are a Syrian living in America. You can humanize the experience, help us understand.”

The sculptures grew more ragged, more raw. Roofs were blown off and walls shattered, so viewers could peer into apartments and see only furniture remaining, family portraits hanging askew on the wall. The recordings Hafez had made in Damascus now piped eerily through what look like deserted remains. If his earlier works celebrated the built heritage of Damascus, these mourned its loss. And more.

Hafez shrugs. “People can’t be burying their loved ones, and you are here in America saying, ‘The architecture, guys,’” he says. Still, he adds, “If we lose our heritage, and art and architecture go away, it’s as if we never existed.”

His art caught on quickly. His résumé lists 25 solo exhibitions since 2016 alone, and his work has been included in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Frauke Josenhans, now associate curator at the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, included one of Hafez’s sculptures in Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope at Yale in 2017. She was impressed with the intimacy of his work.

“As an architect, Mohamad is used to working on monumental projects,” she said in an email. “It is thus all the more meaningful how in his sculptures, he deliberately chooses a small, human-sized scale and painstakingly reproduces artifacts of everyday life in Syria. He creates with his hands memories of his homeland, and the labor-intensive work gives a familiar face to human tragedy and everyday violence in Syria.”

Damascene Athan Series.
Photography by Alex Olevitch

His parents followed him to Connecticut, got green cards, and became American citizens; they return to Syria frequently. Hafez remains a citizen of Syria and cannot travel as easily. A sister lives in Chicago; a brother, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Another sister stayed with her family in Damascus for a time. Then her husband had to flee.

“Life became super hard in Damascus, and he ended up riding a float across the Mediterranean with 50 other people to Europe in the dead of night,” Hafez says. “I still can’t wrap my brain around it. When politicians say stupid stuff about refugees, I want to say, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ And so many people here can say, ‘Let me tell you my parents’ story in America.’” His brother-in-law settled in Sweden, where his family joined him.

Hafez started framing his sculptures inside old suitcases and called the series UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage. “Living out of your suitcase,” he says. “The emotional and physical baggage.”

Partnering with Iraqi-born writer Ahmed Badr, he interviewed refugees from Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan, asking questions about home, about favorite nooks and gathering places. After each interview, Hafez returned to his studio to model what he’d heard, capturing the memories of lost places. “People’s lived experiences are shaped by their built environment,” Hafez says. “Architecture school doesn’t teach us that—that you can have a love relationship with a windowsill where you used to curl up and read on a winter’s day.”

People’s lived experiences are shaped by their built environment...

Mohamad Hafez

“When you learn more about people you feared,” he adds, “you learn they’re not that different from you.” The art, which started as therapy, has become a humanitarian mission. “At the end of the day, there are thousands of architects who can build a shiny skyscraper,” Hafez says. “How many can build a bridge between people in xenophobic times?”