When Mohamad Hafez was a teenager, he would often go missing in Damascus. His parents never worried, though; they always knew exactly where they would find their son. Hafez spent every spare minute of the school holidays wandering the cobbled streets of the Old City, marvelling at the varied architecture: a mosque on one corner, a church or a synagogue around the next. What Hafez could not have known is that, years later, the memories of these blissful afternoons would be his only connection to the city where he was born.
Hafez left Syria in 2003 at the age of 18 and travelled to the United States to study architecture at Iowa State University. It was a traumatic experience for the young man, who was alone in a foreign land and desperately homesick. Added to this, the terms of his visa were such that he was not allowed to return to Syria until he had completed his studies.
Finding himself at a loose end one weekend, Hafez began to make an obsessively detailed miniature model of a building in Damascus, using bits and pieces of discarded wood, metal and polystyrene – rubbish that his fellow architecture students had left behind in the studio. “There I was in the middle of cornfields, in Iowa, in the dead of winter. My American friends were with their respective families and I was by myself,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘If I can’t go home, I’ll recreate home.’ The experience was very therapeutic, a sort of healing through art.”
He never managed to return home
The making of these miniature models sustained Hafez for far longer than he could have ever anticipated. Due to the start of the Syrian War in 2011, as well as the introduction of even tighter visa regulations, Hafez never did return to live in Damascus. He now owns a house in Connecticut and works for a New Haven architecture firm, designing skyscrapers. He is settled and speaks with a mild American accent. But he still makes those miniature models.
“I’ve been making these models for 15 years now, but for the first 10 years, my practice was completely confidential and for me only,” he says. “It’s not until relatively recently that people have said to me that I need to exhibit these works.”
Hafez’s work has since been displayed across the US, as well as in the United Kingdom and Kuwait. What were once gentle love-letters to Syria, however, are now anguished howls of sadness and fury: tiny representations – most no more than a foot high – of the pain and the destruction caused by the ongoing Syrian civil war. Bits of metal, bent out of all recognition, protrude angrily from bomb-blasted concrete walls; washing lines hang limp; chairs and tables lie discarded, covered in grey dust.
Sounds of the past, images of the present, hope for the future
In some of the models, Hafez has even incorporated speakers that play recordings of the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Damascus, producing an eerie juxtaposition between the chaos you see and the peaceful sounds you hear.
In his most recent series, Refugee Baggage, Hafez has recreated, inside open suitcases, the homes of people who have been displaced. Visitors can hear their stories through headphones attached to the work.
“For the first couple of years of the Syrian War, I was in shock – in shock about the human and architectural loss,” he says. “For two years, I didn’t make any work and what happens is that you internalise all of these feelings. So when I finally built up the courage to go back into the studio, the sculptures I made reflected that incredible energy. These visceral, destructive pieces look as if they are ejecting out of the wall.”
'I feel devastated after completing the work'
Each miniature, some of which will be exhibited at the Arab Art Festival in Brooklyn later this year, can take weeks of painstaking work. “If you’re trying to build a thousand-year-old wall in miniature, for example, that wall cannot just have one layer of paint,” Hafez says. “It’s going to have several layers of paint that mimic the centuries and the civilisations that the wall would have passed through. So I paint it, scrape off the paint, start again, scrape off the paint, and so on.”
Hafez’s New Haven studio is lined with stainless steel shelves housing buckets full of bits of junk, which he describes as his “ingredients of the day”. “The contents of these buckets is changing by the week because I have friends and followers who bring me boxes of goodies – antiques and stuff. This ensures that each work has its own charisma and personality,” he says.
Making these miniature models – many of which are based on images Hafez has seen in newspapers and magazines – is no longer the cathartic experience it once was for Hafez, however. “If you are trying to remodel the ruins of Aleppo, I feel devastated after completing the work,” he says, “particularly when I incorporate the sound effects. You’re hearing children playing in the street and the call to prayer and church bells ringing. Anyone who has been to that region will recognise these noises as representations of a peace that no longer exists.”
Hafez, whose parents still occasionally return to Damascus, is not without hope, though. “It is a very dark and grim picture today,” he says. “But if you look out, you see that other nations have been through that and have come out of it. Look at the European countries after World War Two.
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“The first generation of refugees that have come here [to the US] might already be too traumatised and that’s okay, that’s natural, but we have to move on and rebuild. The kids who are 18 years old, they were so young when they left Syria, they know nothing about the country. The sculptures of old Damascus, before the war, allow me to have a conversation with them about how life used to be.”
Time and again, Hafez returns to the theme of how his art give him the opportunity to communicate. “If you introduce me to an audience as a Muslim, Arab, Syrian artist, I risk being judged immediately,” he says. “These sculptures allow me to speak to people with my mouth shut and to connect very deeply with them.”
For details of forthcoming exhibitions, visit www.mohamadhafez.com