I was alone at the exhibit “Critical Refuge: Sculptures by Mohamad Hafez” looking at intricate models of traditional Syrian houses, so I didn’t feel self-conscious pressing my head against the wall to see the artworks’ backsides. Each of the show’s small models of house walls feels weathered by time and occupancy, their paint faded as though exposed to harsh sun year after year. I felt almost surprised to see a block of pink foam on the back of one piece attaching it to the gallery wall, instead of a peek into the interior and the lives of the house’s residents.
“Critical Refuge” is on exhibit at the Whitney Humanities Center until Dec. 20. It will be accompanied by a digital platform that includes readings on refugee studies, an interview with the artist and a biography detailing his passage from Syria to Saudi Arabia at a young age, and then later on to Iowa to study architecture.
Some of the show’s pieces celebrate Syria’s long and rich architectural history. In the interview accompanying the exhibit, Hafez reflects on learning that some house doors in Damascus are nearly 800 years old. “People are living side by side with it like it’s nothing — they take it for granted,” he says; the history is part of the city’s fabric.
The piece “Untitled Facades” includes this kind of door, full of history and character. Red and golden paint crack and chip off the surrounding wall to expose misshapen brick underneath, and the deep colors glisten as though illuminated by the setting sun. The model isn’t an instructive diagram that demonstrates how the city would have looked centuries ago; like the show’s other pieces, this little building has been worn down by occupants that we can tell feel at home in it. Years of people treading on the door’s stoop have warped it, sculpting the stone into a curved shape. Hafez’s models are filled with these kinds of traces of people’s lives.
But Hafez hasn’t made new pieces like these ones in the past few years; he told me in an interview that he hasn’t been in the mood to create them, that he doesn’t have the mental capacity now.
Hafez’s process is very much emotion-driven. He’s often moved to create this artwork because it’s therapeutic to him, and he finds himself longing to get back to his studio when his job as an architect becomes stressful. His art, he says, is about “building up a mood inside me — and whatever comes up, comes up.”
Hafez’s studio, which he invited me to visit, is carefully designed to evoke memories of his homeland: photographs of wartime Syria cover a large swath of wall in the compact space. He plays Syrian music, and brews Arabic coffee for long hours to fill his little space with its strong cardamom smell. He works better in the winter when the window is closed, blocking the sounds of the New Haven street from dampening the atmosphere he tries to create.
Pieces Hafez has created in this space more recently are also on show in the “Critical Refuge” exhibit. Grander and darker than the traditional stone homes, his new artwork is about the sudden destruction of buildings and people’s lives within them. An unseen force flings fragments of metal scraps out toward the viewer in one of his pieces, and leaves a chair teetering on the edge of a floor half blown away in another. For the past four or five years, Hafez says, he has felt compelled to make pieces that are “more of a glimpse of where we are today.”
In the gallery, a recording plays the sounds of a Syrian street: the call to prayer broadcast from mosques’ minarets, people calling out to one another in Arabic — and bombs falling. The sound effects place the viewer into a Damascus street, to an extent, but the impact might have been stronger in a different gallery space. The ground-floor exhibition space’s big windows facing Wall Street and the New Haven courthouse pull the viewer out of the experience.
The distractions of the space don’t ruin the show, because evoking a foreign atmosphere is not its only purpose. As Hafez puts it, “none of these pieces are home.” The artworks aren’t simply reminders of Syria like the sound of familiar music and the smell of Arabic coffee. The pieces are also about Hafez’s inner life, the stages of reliving memories, processing and then sharing them.
Hannah Kazis-Taylor | firstname.lastname@example.org