In the bombed-out, dusty husks of buildings that define what Syria looks like in Western media, there is no beauty, and little trace of anything that could be called a home. But for sculptor Mohamad Hafez, who grew up in the idyllic, culturally rich streets of Damascus, breathed its air, ate its food, and talked with friends late into the night at its cafes, Syria was home. It remained home even after 9/11, when Hafez’s visa was blocked and he couldn’t leave America to visit his family for eight years. And it remained home even as the Syrian Civil War, beginning in 2012, twisted his neighborhood into a nearly inhospitable battleground, forcing his family to scatter into different cities and refugee camps around the world. Helpless to end the conflict, Hafez turned to art as a way to preserve the memories and stories of his home, as well as to interrogate how we create, inhabit, and destroy spaces. The results are truly beautiful.
Each of Hafez’s sculptures uses found objects like cast plaster, parts of radios, and old suitcases to reconstruct pockets of space in miniature. Hafez builds tiny living rooms, streets, and churches out of materials both alien and familiar, often filled with uncomfortable juxtapositions, such as the outline of a sweet girl holding a flower, smudged dark on a wall like the result of a nuclear fallout, in Untitled Baggage #3. I found myself ducking my head back and forth so I could see each piece from every angle, utterly absorbed by the details and intricate textures.
His Royal Highness is a floating, topsy-turvy mass of concrete slabs, broken circuits, and rusted metal. Yet nestled in the center is a shining golden alcove, framed in sharp, orderly angles and the soft fronds of dried plants. The alcove looks like something between a New York penthouse, a wall of speakers, and the lights at a football stadium. A brass trumpet pops out from underneath the structure, like an exclamation point to this strident statement on the inequities, the corruption, and the empty spectacle of power.
On the other hand, Between Love and War is a faded cross-section of a crumbling city, with houses that might once have been quaint, windows leading out into nothing, and the earth torn up and exposed. But in the center, delicate red flowers sprout from shattered concrete, almost defiant in their beauty. Behind the flowers, an unblemished strip of red cloth laced with gold thread hangs above a pile of small white stones. Suspended between the heights of passion and the depths of despair, life goes on.
Each work in the exhibition is a critical triumph in refugee narrative. From the fiercely ironic We Have Won to the brutally direct Mama… I Don’t Know How to Swim, Hafez’s sculptures have a clear message to transmit, and they don’t pull any punches. As Hafez himself writes, “The [art] studio becomes a destination, a serious destination. It becomes a refuge in itself. I am there almost every night. I noticed my studio visits increase with the amount of turmoil in the homeland. Doing this work is the only cathartic action I can think of. While it does not completely heal, it is still very therapeutic.”
Speaking of space, the WHC is an unusual choice of setting. Unlike in a real museum, viewers will have to navigate wooden tables and awkwardly placed flower vases in the room, and We Have Won, which is supposed to play sound, was silent when I visited. But the room’s lighting is great, and some sculpture placements turned out to add another dimension to the piece, like the imposing alcove which seats We Have Won, and the mirror behind Mama which multiplies its many dangling paper boats.
Upon second thought, though, the WHC is the perfect setting. Critical Refuge is both an art exhibit and an academic experiment, in which Hafez collaborated with an interdisciplinary team of Yale students to create www.criticalrefuge.com, a website full of secondary research materials. In this context, Hafez’s work is a springboard for students to deepen their understanding of the cultural and political impact of the Syrian conflict on refugees in America and the rest of the world. Hafez’s sculptures are a refuge, a destination, a space to rest. At the same time, they also confront our own assumptions about the space we inhabit, asking us to be more aware of our positions as students or teachers and the power we have to create different kinds of space. When you visit this exhibit, be sure to ask yourself: How does this make you feel? This simple question should spawn even more about space, home, and refuge that will stay with you even after you leave the exhibit.
CRITICAL REFUGE: SCULPTURES BY MOHAMAD HAFEZ is on view at the Whitney Humanities Center Aug. 30 – Dec. 20, 2017. A unique digital program accompanies this exhibit, curated by an interdisciplinary team of graduate and undergraduate students advised by Professor Zareena Grewal and PhD candidate Najwa Mayer.