Syrian architect and artist Mohamad Hafez opened his Assembly presentation on February 17 by dividing the Hopkins community into those who hold blue passports, and those who have red passports.
Syrian architect and artist Mohamad Hafez opened his Assembly presentation on February 17 by dividing the Hopkins community into those who hold blue passports, and those who have red passports. Hafez related the example of separating a group of people based solely on nationality to recent political measures, saying, “Other immigrants and millions of people are being painted with such a wide brush; [we are being] judged based on the color of our passports. That’s crazy.” Hafez insisted, however, that his presentation would remain an open conversation, emphasizing, “I am not here to discuss politics but to have an open discussion about where we are as a society, and to tell you our Syrian story, so you can relate.”
Born in Damascus, Hafez later emigrated to the United States and completed his education at Iowa State University, studying electrical engineering and architecture. He now works for architecture firm Pickard Chilton, has opened an art studio in Westville, and exhibits his work at local art institutions.
Hafez’s artwork was displayed in the Keator Gallery at Hopkins three weeks after President Trump signed the executive order on January 27, banning entries from seven primarily Muslim
countries, yet Hafez’s invitation was planned long before American immigration regulations were scrutinized. Last fall, Chair of the Art Department and Visual Arts teacher Karen Klugman visited Hafez’s Westville studio along with Visual Arts teacher Eric Mueller and Architecture teacher Derek Byron. The three were captivated by Hafez’s work, as Klugman recalled, “We were awestruck by the power of the sculptures that were admirable in their craftsmanship and horrifying for their depiction of reality, and we were smitten with Mohamad’s message that he wants to humanize Syrians.”
Hafez began creating sculptural streetscapes as a college student in 2003, after he was unable to visit his family in Syria for fear that he might be detained upon returning to the United States. Out
of homesickness and nostalgia, Hafez recreated scenes of his homeland from memory. Hafez’s art continued to evolve alongside events in the Middle East; after the Arab Spring in 2011 and as the Syrian war continued, Klugman recalled that the pieces “began to reflect the civil war.” Hafez, himself, explained the interplay between his country and art, saying, “In photographs of streetscapes and bombed-out neighborhood buildings, you can’t recognize what is top and bottom. The chaos informed a dark and pessimistic aesthetic in me.”
Hafez’s sculpture is created from “found objects,” bits and pieces taken from his surroundings or studio. He emphasized that he does not plan his projects, but rather is inspired by the objects themselves, saying, “You experience with creativity until you reach a point where you are at peace, and then develop it.” His three dimensional creations, which measure anywhere from one to six feet in length, and may take up to six months to create, jut out from the wall, drawing the viewer in as the piece invades their personal space. Annie Nields ’17, who is the editor of Hopkins’ literary magazine Daystar and a visual arts student, said, “Hafez’s works remind me of the drippy, tattered qualities of Giacometti’s figures. I want to know more about how he imagines physical space and whether or not he uses a mix of images and memories when making his structures.” Liz Bamgboye ’20 emphasized the impact of his art, adding, “I was emotionally moved. You feel the desperation and anxiety. You get a glimpse of the lives many people are forced to live.”
Klugman hopes that the Hopkins community will continue to visit the Keator Gallery to interact with the pieces. Klugman explained, “At Hopkins, we are facile with words and sometimes overlook the power of nonverbal communication. I hope people spend time looking at details and just let it all sink in.”
Last year, Hafez installed a piece in a local gallery featuring 120 paper boats; each vessel, made by refugee children in New Haven, represents sixty two people who have died during their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea between 2014 and 2016. Elise Aslanian ’19 said Hafez’s work “was powerful because the press has been able to give [Syria] a negative connotation, and Hafez’s art shows what actually occurs there.”
Jacob Wolfe ’18 described the humanizing power these works of art can have, explaining, “[Hafez’s] art makes complex issues such as the refugee crisis entertaining but also helps the ideas sink into the minds of the public.” Holden Turner ’17 said, “The truest part [of his pieces] is that he shared them openly out of necessity.”
Recently, after the American presidential election and the travel ban enacted by President Trump, Hafez’s artwork has focused on political power. Of his recent piece “His Majesty’s Throne,” Hafez has said the juxtaposition between the figure in a gold room surrounded by crowded houses illustrates “how some of us are stuck in a golden throne while the entire country and surrounding went into a demolished state, and when societies allow their leaders to perform some ‘verbal diarrhea’.” Although the work does not specifically name President Trump, the portrait is an amalgamation of nine world leaders, including hair which resembles Trump’s trademark blonde hair.
In a Q&A session after his Assembly presentation, Hafez emphasized that the figure central to “His Majesty’s Throne” was not the sitting President of the United States, saying, “None of my art attacks a person’s character, I try to challenge the policies not the personalities.” As a result after discussion among Klugman and the administration, the work was not allowed to be exhibited at Hopkins.
While Klugman understands how the artwork could have contributed to the strength of the gallery, she also agreed to omit the piece, explaining, “People would have focused on the recognizable figures more than on the details of the other work, [thus] detract[ing] from the humanizing message of the other work.”
Hafez is not the only artist who hopes that the exhibition of his artwork will create a dialogue to better understand other cultures. On February 3, less than a week after the travel ban, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City showcased works created by seven artists from the banned countries in place of other works in the permanent collection. Beside each piece of art, the MOMA included a plaque which read, “This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection… to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”
When asked whether he believed other museums should follow the MOMA’s initiative, Hafez responded affirmatively, saying, “The artist’s responsibility is to document the world around you, and how do you create a dialogue, and have people look at work and reflect if museums in the western world do not empower artwork?”
Director of Diversity and English teacher Amanda Friedman, who played a role inviting Hafez to The Hill, hopes that the Hopkins community will continue to interact with Hafez’s art, saying, “It is when we truly get to know one another that our assumptions, our biases, and our judgments dissolve. Our resistance to difference dissipates to make room for an understanding and appreciation of all experiences as valid and valuable.”
In fact, Hafez does not produce his artwork for financial purposes, nor does he sell to private investors, because he wants his art to be circulated as widely as possible in order to create conversation and convey the idea that there exists “a common denominator that makes us all human.” Head of School Dr. Kai Bynum said of Hafez’s work, “Art can capture the essence of emotions words cannot convey. Art can humanize, and Mohamad Hafez has found a way to leverage the power of art.” Hafez’s work will remain on exhibit in the Keator Gallery through March 10.