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Syrian-born New Haven artist turns the wreckage of his homeland into stunning art

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For a case study in true heartbreak, observe the way New Haven artist Mohamad Hafez’s art has shifted over the years.

The Syrian-born Hafez’s earliest works are recreations of small slivers of Syrian street life: tiles made up as photorealistic building facades, complete with the worn look of smears of dirt and the elegant swoop of Arabic graffiti. Hafez’s early art was born of the homesickness he felt while studying in the U.S., a longing for the streets of Damascus where he was born. These street facades resemble two-dimensional photographs as much as sculptures. They capture the beauty of street corners we might pass a thousand times, but never appreciate until we leave. This was all before the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

After five years of war — war with destruction scarcely seen since World War II — Syrian cities have taken on a new appearance. Hafez’s art has, too. Where once Hafez crafted the facades of streets he loved, he now crafts buildings with facades cut off; destroyed city streets, buildings that are almost — but not completely — reduced to rubble.

Shortly after Hafez was born in Damascus, his family moved to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. After coming to the U.S. to study architecture at Iowa State University in 2004, Hafez discovered that his student visa was only valid for a single entry to the U.S. Studying architecture here had been a lifelong dream, and now Hafez was trapped in the dream, unable to return home. It was then that he started to recreate the Syrian streets he held in his mind, from the memories and feelings that all expatriates carry with them. The maturation and evolution of Hafez’s artistic style would, however, mirror the descent into war in his homeland. What has resulted is a self-taught artistic form, born of absence and sharpened by mourning.

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Entasarna! (We have won!)

One of Hafez’s most striking works is the 4-foot-by-4-foot sculpture Entasarna! (We Have Won!), constructed from foam pieces, found materials, wires and plaster. To encounter the work is to be viscerally confronted with the physical realities the Syrian civil war has wrought. Miniature steel rebar and concrete frames grasp toward the viewer from an apartment building that has had its face violently sheared off. Television antennas reach skyward, sprouting from collapsed stairwells. On first blush, the work is as complete a portrait of destruction as possible. This is pure horror, we think at first. But Hafez begs us to look closer.

Right in the center of the piece, framed by the rubble, is a single wooden chair. It is missing an arm and sits on a concrete floor, from an apartment now exposed to the outside world. In the multitude of chaos compressed into the work, the chair is the single calm thing. “They are still alive,” Hafez says. “Somebody has taken the time to pick up this chair and set it apart from the destruction.” This lonely chair is why the title of the piece is a declaration of victory. The chair speaks for the person who might sit in it: I am still here. You have not killed me.

By day, the 33-year-old Hafez works as an architect for the prominent downtown New Haven firm Pickard Chilton, where he designs buildings that do not yet exist. As he watches the destruction of his homeland from afar, his mind is full of buildings that no longer exist. And so his art has become a form of therapy.

“You have to acknowledge what we have come to, but there needs to be a way forward,” Hafez says. It is a theme that echoes throughout Hafez’s work. In one piece, a single light in a wrecked apartment tower is still shining, resisting the darkness of war. In another work, Hafez splashes Arabic graffiti on his structure, reading a popular phrase in today’s Syria: “Tomorrow, when things have calmed down …”

The phrase echoes a real-life graffiti that emerged from Aleppo in October. “When the siege breaks, I will ask you to marry me,” it reads. For Hafez, there is an almost otherworldly strength exuded in that sentence construction. Like those in Northern Ireland for whom 40 years of fighting was simply the Troubles, it refuses to name the fighting even as war or revolution. It is simply things. In planning to do something, to do anything “when things have calmed down,” is to survive, to know there is life beyond this. Embedded in the phrase is the survival of the mind, as well as the body.

In June of this year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced there are more people currently displaced by wars and persecution in their home countries than at any other time since the agency began keeping records. Many of the displaced are from Syria. Turkey has taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has taken over a million and Jordan has taken some 600,000, according to Amnesty International. The U.S. set a goal, which it has now reached, of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees. Immigrants and refugees have faced a difficult time in the U.S. this year, most visibly when Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. during his presidential campaign. In the wake of Trump’s election, Hafez is anxious and worried about what will come next, but his goal remains to educate. “I am a Muslim. I am a Syrian. I am Arab. My name is Mohamad. Come meet me,” he says.

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Oh My God

Several of Hafez’s most recent pieces speak to the global refugee crisis. In Desperate Cargo, Hafez puts the viewer in the shoes of someone on a Syrian street, gazing skyward. Perhaps we are in eastern Aleppo, long under siege by the Syrian regime and Russian bombing. Hafez’s miniature skyline reaches toward the center of an upside-down rubber dinghy, the small rubber boats that have carried many Syrian refugees to the shores of Europe, and many to their deaths in the Mediterranean Ocean. In the small sliver of sky framed by Hafez’s miniature city, fighter jets scramble to drop their deadly cargo. In a series titled Refugee Nation, briefcases contain small dioramas of what a refugee might leave behind: a displaced-persons camp, a beautiful piece of furniture, a life.

For Hafez, his work on behalf of refugees extends beyond his art. He assists with the New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, an organization that works to settle Syrians in the New Haven area. Hafez explains that he helps people who may not speak English meet basic settlement needs, from getting a car to an apartment. On a national level, Hafez works with the Maryland-based group Aid All Syrians, whose efforts reach back to Syria itself. The organization has established a school for the children of war who, like all children, still need to learn. Aid All Syrians has also set up nine medical clinics to provide primary care. Hafez recently received a collection of drawings from the students at the school, which he will be selling for $100 apiece. The cost of each drawing will fund a child’s education for a year. Children who have known only war, Hafez says, have drawn bombings and fighter jets. The drawings are on sale through the website aidallsyrians.org. While Hafez is not selling his large works, as he envisions them occupying a museum space eventually, he is selling some of his smaller works.

Of the roughly 150 artists on display at New Haven’s Goffe Street armory for the mid-October edition of the City-Wide Open Studios festival, Hafez’s showcase was among the most arresting. He explains that while “nothing is more precious than human life in conflicts,” it is the role of people like himself to expand our understanding of war. “Some of us … have to weep about the culture, and the architecture, and the archaeology that’s being decimated in front of our eyes. And that’s what I see really myself as doing right now. I am mourning and weeping creatively over the loss and the death of my country.”

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Unsettled Nostalgia

The German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, himself a Jewish refugee from the march of fascism, famously wrote about what it is to bear witness. He embedded his philosophy in a character he called the Angel of History: “His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. … The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.” Hafez’s art is pushing forward, helping the viewer understand, creating conversation and dialogue about refugees and war and survival. While the art pushes us forward, it faces behind, ever mindful of the destruction it represents.

The early years of the Syrian war were paralysis for Hafez. “The first couple years of the war, I didn’t pick a pencil up. … I felt that my hand was really cast in concrete.” We are lucky that Hafez did eventually pick up a pencil to sketch his models of the Syrian war. Perhaps more than the news stories, more than the policy debates, more than the pictures flooding our screens every day, Hafez’s work makes the tragedy of Syria real. Sympathy is to feel pity and sorrow for the difficulties of another. Empathy goes further — it is the ability to understand another, and to share the same feelings. The latter is harder to come by. Mohamad Hafez’s art helps get us there.

MohamadHafez.com

AidAllSyrians.org