Sebi Sola-Sole ‘21

Art Correspondent

“Unsettled Nostalgia.” Photo courtesy of Mohamad Hafez

Nostalgia and identity underpin visiting artist Mohamad Hafez’s portfolio. Before he even considers the media of a new sculpture, he initiates a laundry list of sensory stimulation procedures to relocate him from his tiny studio in New Haven to his home city of  Damascus: he pipes in incense, plugs in a slow-drip water fountain, and brews a pot of cardamom-stiff Syrian coffee to activate the art trance and remind himself of the emotions associated with immigration.

This past week, at the beckon of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program under Dr. Berkey’s leadership, and in combination with several sponsoring clubs and a gaggle of student and faculty leaders, Hafez flew out to Davidson from his fellowship at Yale University to visit classes, speak to students, lead a sculpture demo for Arabic speakers, and lecture Monday night in the Wall Atrium.

My main interest in the event was his work with sculpture. Being an art student, a couple of my teachers mentioned it to me and I decided, in a bout of procrastination, to drag some friends out of the library and to the talk. I was so impressed and motivated by Hafez and his career I decided—further procrastinating—to write about it and extoll the value of what I saw. 

Hafez’s lecture traced his career as an artist and activist, starting with his private hobby work—recreating Syrian architecture in the miniature—and moving in time through the Arab Spring and Syrian Revolution, where his style and interest changed to reflect chaos in the country. His current project represents the broader immigrant community, lending a voice and highlighting identity.  

He prefaced his career arc with a few crucial pieces of background information: Hafez was born into a middle class family in Syria and raised in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until he left for college in the U.S. While the Saudi Arabian culture wasn’t incredibly formative to Hafez, his life and roots in Damascus lent him a love of the country and a fascination with its cultural fabric. Enrolled at Iowa State University, he took up architecture academically and sculpture extracurricularly; through design and art, Hafez could exhale pent-up remembrances and longings for Syria. 

Legos and streetside conversation with friendly Damascans inspired his architectural and ethnographic interests; sculpture was the vehicle for their expression. Underneath his enormously successful career designing glass and steel skyscrapers across the U.S., Hafez channeled his nostalgia into architectural recreations of Syrian constructions marketed (after he found the motivation to publicly pronounce his work) as art. 

He started in plaster, curing 12”-by-12” blocks upon which he cultured rust, exposed brick tiny masonry, weathered paint, and built doors, recreating rustic Damascan house facades in the miniature, with just as much character as might exist–at ten times scale—planted on a Syrian street. 

He scaled up and moved into city scapes, using much less plaster and more found objects. In his piece “Unsettled Nostalgia,” where the scale and quantity of tight detail make it difficult to determine any single focal point, Hafez’s scavenged golf tees, acorns, and rusty nails become the minaret speakers, facade adornments, lamp post heads, and balcony supports in the miniature recreation of a Syrian city section. 

With the Arab Spring and destruction involved in the Syrian Revolution, Hafez’s sculpture changed again. The media and subject matter remained the same—still representing Syrian housing through found objects and miniature architecture—but the technique and emotional charge shifted to characterize the chaos. In “Collateral Damage,” the artist builds a 360-degree, plaster and iron city block reduced to rubble by the war. He dulls his color palette, scaling back on all non-gray tones, deliberately locating all moments of color to focalize particular pieces of destruction. 

When U.S. news media moved on from the humanitarian crisis, Hafez broadened his objective. Situated in New Haven, a sanctuary city, he came into contact with hundreds of other immigrants whose voices and stories demanded broadcast. Over tea and mountains of baklava, he drew out the experiences of ten families who flew to the U.S., fleeing difficult conditions in their home nations. The interviews he conducted inspired him to exploit more auditory media, which he laid over top the “bel composto”–style constructions: now miniatures of rubble from the subjects’ abandoned homes. He titled the project, aptly, “Unpacked Baggage.”   

Of course, his portfolio is much greater than the few projects I had the space to identify here. Mohamad Hafez is an artist seemingly unburdended by the concept of product or ultimate success. He repeatedly distinguished the importance of and joy in the process of assembling his sculptures. His background in design (and probably a couple hundred hours of playing with Legos) lent him the faculties to create astoundingly detailed cityscapes without, as said, any prerendering or prior conceptualization. He just cracks his knuckles and steps out on stage! 

If the images  we stole (with permission) from his website tickle you even a little bit, go browse the rest of his work. The elegance of detail, whether in the chaos of his postwar reconstructions or perfectly assembled “Unpacked Baggage” scenes, is striking, and the color concept across all of his work is just as evocative. 

Hafez closed his talk with the call to action that purposes his entire portfolio: Change the rhetoric. Each piece of his lends an immigrant nationality the character and personality that mainstream media fails to, and steps away from constricting labels and stereotypes. 

To Hafez, one way to force equality is by proving similarity first hand; by pushing back against the circumstances that strip people of their personhood—and then endowing them with the personality and individuality they are denied—greater equality can be found.