Mohamad Hafez may call New Haven home now, but the talented artist and architect, who was born in Damascus and raised in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, often thinks about his days in Syria.
It’s those deep thoughts that are the inspiration for his artistic vision, with art that focuses on Syria and refugees.
“My work came out of my homesickness originally,” he said. “I came to the U.S. 14 years ago and realized I couldn’t go back home, and it was eight years before I was able to see any family or siblings.”
He was an architectural student at Iowa State University in 2004, and his visa did not allow him to return, as Syria had what’s akin to today’s travel ban.
“Citizens of 25 countries had to register every time they moved houses or planned trips, and even though I was a student, my visa was for entry only,” Hafez said. “[In] the aftermath I was very, very homesick. I realized if I could not go home, I would recreate it, so I started modeling — out of nostalgia — streetscapes of my hometown of Damascus.”
From there, Hafez began creating surrealistic Middle Eastern streetscapes that are architectural in their appearance yet politically charged in their content. Today his work reflects the political turmoil in the Middle East through the compilation of found objects, paint and scrap metal.
“I am very interested in street art — very much interested in graffiti art — but also interested in miniatures,” he said. “I can’t do graffiti on real Middle Eastern walls, so I recreate it through sculpture and do miniature graffiti on them.”
He infuses cross-disciplinary exploration of street art and the realistic through his sculptures, intermixing such things as verses from the holy Qur’an, audio recordings from his homeland, or other elements of Islamic heritage reflected in the architectural typography. Qur’anic calligraphy, for instance, is presented as spray-painted acts of revolutionary protest or as an audio loop from a hidden source to defy the iron fist of dictatorship regimes in the region.
“I’ve always had attention to detail and a critical eye, and the older I grow, that critical eye ties the architect to the artist in me,” he said. “Most of these pieces are built on the spot. I use memories and stories about other immigrants to direct my art.”
One of his most interesting series of work, called the “Baggage Series,” consists of visual models of life narratives experienced by refugees of war, designed inside old suitcases.
“I’ve been interested in the notion of baggage, both in the mental emotional and physical forms,” Hafez said. “In the U.S., most people come from immigrant backgrounds and they carry a lot of baggage with them of their pasts. While people may think we are different, there is so much that brings us together. In a divided society like we have today, I like to highlight that common ground.”
The suitcase, he said, reflects memories that we all carry, and the series represents the backpacks of Syrians fleeing war with only the bare necessities because their journeys are so dangerous and arduous.
“Their fates are often in the hands of smugglers who routinely exploit them, promising safety for a price but then squeezing them onto boats and fitting them with faulty, deadly life jackets,” he said. “Smugglers often force refugees to shed whatever meager belongings they are carrying with them, tossing bags to pack the boats tighter with people or frantically dumping extra weight once the boats begin leaking.”
Each suitcase has a media player and headset, and viewers may listen to stories from refugees and hear what they went through on their journey.
Hafez’s latest work, titled Mohamad Hafez: Homeland InSecurity, is currently being exhibited at the Luchsinger Gallery at Greenwich Academy and features poignant three-dimensional cityscapes, conveying the rich cultural heritage of a homeland ravaged by the ongoing Syrian civil war.
He also has work up at the Yale Art Gallery as part of a group exhibit, Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope, which runs through the end of 2017.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, but the world just found out about me,” he said. “For a long time, I kept it to myself and never shared it. The more political turmoil there was in the world, the more I was making artwork. As I grew as an architect, my pieces became more complicated and detailed and I started to show them.”
Hafez works in his studio, and inspiration often comes from the news he reads about his homeland.
“My studio is full of photographs from the region and those heavily published over the six-year war,” he said. “I play music from back home, I burn incense and I set the mood. I depart New Haven and go into some romantic version of a memory of my lost home. That mood builds the piece pretty much.”
When not doing his art, Hafez works for Pickard Chilton, a New Haven architecture firm that specializes in building corporate buildings and skyscrapers.
The exhibit runs through Dec. 12. For more information, visit greenwichacademy.org.