“Refugees: Stories of Life’s Dreams and Scars,” a multimedia installation by Mohamad Hafez, explores the effects and horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the aftermath of the war in Iraq. Hafez and his two collaborators, brother-sister duo Wurood and Maher Mahmoud, have created a topical and haunting installation that humanizes the consequences of conflict.
Walking into the space, I am confronted by a white wall, over which hang 120 origami paper boats. It’s aesthetically pleasing, attractive and calming in its minimalism. But upon further examination, the boats are impaled by ominously pointed fishhooks, which serve as the means of suspension. I learn from the explanatory card that each of the boats represents 62 dead refugees, all of whom drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2016. What at first appears to be an abstract exercise in clean minimalism is actually a fiercely political statement. As it turns out, this sets the tone for much of the rest of the exhibit.
Passing behind the wall, I face several high-contrast black-and-white photographs of postwar life in Iraq, the contributions of Maher Mahmoud. The photos are eerily ambiguous, showing empty doorways and elderly citizens simply staring off into space. Perhaps most telling is a photo of a young boy pretending that a piece of wood is a gun. Perhaps the war has been internalized by everyone, leaving the young — who have never experienced anything else — to emulate violence, and the old to take refuge in memory of better times.
The other purely photographic element of the exhibition is Hafez’s. A visually overwhelming collage of snapshots dominates an entire wall. Every photo is roughly the same size and quality as those many of us took with disposable cameras when we were younger, before digital was the standard. Interspersed with the smiling faces of children are more disconcerting images: burned dolls, men crying, heads wrapped in bloody gauze. What first seems familiar and nostalgic is anything but. The photos suggest that despite the innocence that many of the subjects exhibit, happiness exists under the constant threat of violence.
Adding to the exhibit’s aching sadness are Wurood Mahmoud’s beautiful drawings. Some are expressionistic and surreal, while others nearly approach pop art in their bright colors and focus on scenes from everyday life. In these drawings, we are shown both the warmth and vibrancy of Iraqi culture in happier times, and the pain wrought by political instability.
Hafaz’s work with miniature is also striking, and perhaps an introduction for some to a strangely underutilized art form. His small-scale replicas of bombed-out Syrian apartment buildings are startlingly realistic. It’s only upon further inspection that one notices a slightly surreal edge to them, with the faces of Syrian citizens imprinted upon both the windows and the various pieces of cloth that have been hung out to dry.
The best miniature work, and most surprising aspect of the installation, is a series of four small boxes jutting out from the wall. While they initially appear to be completely closed, one actually has to look through tiny slits (truly tiny, to the point where they can be hard even to find) to catch glimpses of the aftermath of conflict within. One of these boxes contains a surprise I would not dream of revealing to you, suffice to say that it comes as something of a gut punch.
The cumulative effect of the exhibition is hard to describe. It’s painful and melancholy, an entire room in the middle of Silliman devoted to mourning a culture and generation possibly destroyed by the horrors of war. The overall atmosphere, however, does not feel like one of depression or victimhood, but of defiance. It feels like a call to arms, a way to make us think about what it means to be a refugee and how a person’s humanity can exist beyond the borders of their homeland.