For 10 years, Mohamad Hafez had a secret. By day, he was an architect designing buildings for a firm in New Haven, Connecticut. By night, he kept a studio where he spent hours making things of a different scale – miniature models of his native Syria, its streets, porticos and buildings.
It was an obsession that started when he was 19. He had just moved to the United States to study at Iowa State University. The holidays had come around, and the campus was left empty as students departed to visit their families. Hafez had to stay in the country or he would lose his single-entry student visa status. Alone and homesick, he was struck with an impulse to create something that would connect him to his home country.
Snatching up discarded materials such as plaster and wood from the school's studio, he toiled for hours, losing track of time as he assembled an architectural montage of a Damascus building facade. "That was the first time I experienced what people call therapeutic, cathartic art," he recalls. "Nobody knew about it because it was only for me, to deal with my homesickness." Even after he moved to Connecticut for work and his career as an architect took off, Hafez didn't stop creating.
Ten years later, his models have become masterpieces, on show in exhibitions across the US. Now, his latest body of work is on view at Sharjah Art Museum. They feature richly textured and hyper-realistic dioramas of Old Damascus, where Hafez explored the streets and admired the architecture as a teenager. Drawing from old photographs and memories, he reconstructs the ancient city's streetscapes, replete with details of daily life: intricately carved wooden doors, plants on porches, clotheslines hanging from balconies, satellite dishes and street signs.
His creations would have remained unseen had it not been for the outbreak of conflict in Syria, the tragic effects of which did not escape him. "I saw members of my immediate family become refugees, going to a refugee camp in Sweden," he says. "That brought me to a complete stop, from going 400-miles-an-hour, Mister Corporate Architect, to an early midlife crisis. I asked, 'Why was I saved?'. I could have been in their shoes. I could have been in that refugee camp."
Hafez began to show his work more widely in 2015, and it quickly drew attention. In one of his most well-known series Baggage, he constructs models of war-torn rooms and towers inside suitcases to represent what he calls "refugee baggage" – the trauma of conflict and displacement. This narrative continues in his Sharjah exhibition. Titled Journeys from an Absent Present to A Lost Past, it evokes the nostalgia experienced by those displaced. In these new works, which are specifically created for the museum's Islamic Arts Festival, Hafez adds to his series on Old Damascus, mounting miniature models on mirror frames. "The mirror refers to frozen memories. A lot of people living in a diaspora from our region are stuck in memories of home. They're longing for a day and age that doesn't exist in this moment in history," he explains.
In these mirror pieces, Hafez has hidden antique keys, another symbol for this longing. "When the Palestinians were forced out of their homes in 1948, they were told that they could come back in a few days," he explains. History tells us the rest – the Nakba resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. "When you speak to an older family from Palestine, they will tell you about the story of the key, how this is everything they have left from that home. Sadly, this is now an experience that applies to Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans."
His installation Hung Memories shows a hanging sculpture of Damascene mosaics into which buildings and homes are crammed. "A lot of doors were shut to refugees and immigrants … so we had to make new homes in every nook and cranny we could find." Their lives are in a state of limbo, Hafez says. Suspended, like the structure.
Addressing the refugee crisis is central to the artist's practice. In fact, he sees it as a personal responsibility. "I believe art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed," he says, quoting poet Cesar A Cruz. "I cannot invest these thousands of hours in pieces and come out with a product that's just for aesthetics' sake."
In one of the more stunning sculptures of the show, Hafez highlights Syria’s history through its architecture with a model depicting a church and mosque side by side. “If Islam was at war with other cultures, there wouldn’t be a single church standing in our region,” he says. “In Damascus, we grew up with churches next to synagogues, next to mosques. That is not the perception in the West. As an architect living in xenophobic times, I want to use my art to push against these narratives.”
As his artistic career is growing, Hafez sees his work as a bridge between East and West. “I’m always held in that position where I’m talking to both worlds, but it has been extremely fulfilling. Not everyone can stand in front of an audience and talk about this stuff without having been in the region and from the region,” he says.
After two decades in the US, he has only recently become a citizen. “Moving around the world became much easier with a US passport,” he says, adding that now he can travel to the Middle East more often. In America, he aims to shift negative perceptions of Arabs and Islam. The Quranic verses embedded in his work, for example, often centre on forgiveness and unity. In the region, he wants to show that “the nature of American society is very different from the actions of the [current] government there.”
Though it may be easy to label his art as dark and tragic, it's not the whole side of the story. "If you study the work closely, there are hints of hope and life and triumph and people moving on," he explains. His sculptures, though devoid of human figures, reveal stories of love and survival. The clues are in the details. "There's human footprints and fingerprints in the work. We leave scuff marks and nails where pictures used to hang. The layering aspect, the graffiti, all this adds to the story of who was living there," he says.
By being meticulous in constructing his pieces, Hafez has created small worlds that visitors can get lost in. Everything has been considered, from the patina of the buildings to the colours of the carpets and fabrics. The realism is impressive, but even then, it isn't exactly accurate. Hafez acknowledges that the models are based on memory and his own imagination. They may resemble Old Damascus, but they are the product of his own longing. But he says it's not a nostalgia that yearns for the past. It is only a memento, "a token of hope … something to move on with" as refugees, immigrants and those away from home seek to rebuild their lives. "The past is the past. Understand it, appreciate it and see how we got here. But let's focus on building tomorrow."
Journeys from an Absent Present to A Lost Past is on show at Sharjah Art Museum until Tuesday, January 21