When Mohamad Hafez’s “Unsettled Nostalgia” exhibit opened at Deerfield’s von Auersperg gallery on January 19, Deerfield Academy became one of the few fortunate institutions to showcase one of the most socially searing, meticulously constructed works on the inheritance and conflict that exists in modern art.
Unsettled Nostalgia is the latest in a series of evolving reflections from Mohamad Hafez, a Syrian-American artist and architect. The exhibition is comprised of devastating scenes of beleaguered cities in miniature models. These models, formed by pieces of metal, iron, and objects, hauntingly illuminate the political turmoil in Syria.
All of the pieces in the exhibit are devoid of human figures. Mr. Hafez explained, “If there’s a figure, your eye won’t fully dive into the scene. The way that I show humans is through their effect on the built environment.”
Born and raised in Damascus, Mr. Hafez’s passion for architecture was inspired by the sophisticated arches, columns and doorways he observed while strolling the streets of the Ancient City of Damascus. The artist recalled sketching drawings and diagrams of structures in his free time, developing artistic and architectural skills that would later emerge to characterize his professional work.
After finishing high school, Mr. Hafez came to the United States and attended Iowa State University as a student of architecture. His visa guidelines mandated that he was not to return to Syria until he completed his education.
In order to combat his longing to reunite with his home, he would spend time in the university’s architecture studio reconstructing miniature structures inspired by the Syrian buildings that had been imprinted in his memory, using the scraps and leftovers from other students.
Since graduating from university in 2009, he has settled in New Haven, Connecticut, and currently designs skyscrapers in addition to creating modified models of his native country, Syria. He would finally return home many years later, only to witness the stirrings of a civil war.
Since safely returning to the United States, Mr. Hafez has kept a keen eye on the situation in Syria, noting every protest and bombing. By the time the Civil War broke out, Syria was war-torn and heading toward the brink of self-destruction. Anguished by his inability to offer help from afar, Mr. Hafez again turned his mind to the shelter and tranquility he found in creating art.
He began to construct models of cities destroyed by the civil war, reflecting the political turmoil ravaging his homeland.
Mr. Hafez wondered, “How can the rest of the world relate to the experiences of a war-torn country by using the human experience?”
To Mr. Hafez, these pieces are necessary for him to create because of his identity. In describing his art , he said, “Artists are documents of their time. I could paint flowers and butterflies, but the responsibility lies on my shoulders to tell these stories.”
As the first gallery showcase of the new decade, Mohamad Hafez’s exhibition constitutes a timely reminder to our student body; although we inhabit a space of tranquil scholarship, we should always remain aware of those who suffer from everyday violence and strive to protect and celebrate the rich heritage and legacy of those under threat.