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A Little Piece of Downtown Damascus in New Haven


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NEW HAVEN — An exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery spotlighting artists in exile had yet to open to the public, but the sense of anticipation inside was crackling a few weeks ago. As word spread that a local architect who had created one of its showstopper installations was on-site, a steady stream of curious security guards appeared.

Between their shifts, each was eager to meet the man who built an engrossingly realistic four-foot-high model of a bombed-out apartment building, one seemingly airlifted from the civil war engulfing Damascus, Syria.

Mohamed Hafez, the artist, knows that city’s contested terrain well. He is a native of Syria, though he has lived in New Haven since graduating from Iowa State University in 2009. “In today’s political climate,” he explained, “if I introduce myself to the normal Joe as Mohamad — a Muslim, Arab, Syrian artist — they have already judged me two million ways. So I learned to keep my mouth shut and make artwork that speaks to many people. Then it grows on you organically.”

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By day he helps design soaring glass and steel skyscrapers for Pickard Chilton, an architectural firm in New Haven. At night his scale becomes palm-size as he carefully transforms scavenged piano keys, old radio components, a gas-mask filter and even a dried eggplant into the weathered building blocks of tiny urban edifices.

Meticulously detailed, down to the twisted iron rebar poking out of a chunk of blasted concrete, the structure he created for the Yale show, “Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope,” had one entire side sheared off, as if by an artillery shell. The effect was that of a macabre dollhouse. It was by turns beguiling and unsettling — which, Mr. Hafez explained with a knowing smile, was precisely the point.

Continue reading the main story

NEW HAVEN — An exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery spotlighting artists in exile had yet to open to the public, but the sense of anticipation inside was crackling a few weeks ago. As word spread that a local architect who had created one of its showstopper installations was on-site, a steady stream of curious security guards appeared.

Between their shifts, each was eager to meet the man who built an engrossingly realistic four-foot-high model of a bombed-out apartment building, one seemingly airlifted from the civil war engulfing Damascus, Syria.

Mohamed Hafez, the artist, knows that city’s contested terrain well. He is a native of Syria, though he has lived in New Haven since graduating from Iowa State University in 2009. “In today’s political climate,” he explained, “if I introduce myself to the normal Joe as Mohamad — a Muslim, Arab, Syrian artist — they have already judged me two million ways. So I learned to keep my mouth shut and make artwork that speaks to many people. Then it grows on you organically.”

By day he helps design soaring glass and steel skyscrapers for Pickard Chilton, an architectural firm in New Haven. At night his scale becomes palm-size as he carefully transforms scavenged piano keys, old radio components, a gas-mask filter and even a dried eggplant into the weathered building blocks of tiny urban edifices.

Meticulously detailed, down to the twisted iron rebar poking out of a chunk of blasted concrete, the structure he created for the Yale show, “Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope,” had one entire side sheared off, as if by an artillery shell. The effect was that of a macabre dollhouse. It was by turns beguiling and unsettling — which, Mr. Hafez explained with a knowing smile, was precisely the point.

“There’s something about detailed miniatures that intrigues people of all ages, from 7 to 70,” he said. “This is a way of raising awareness in a way the news media doesn’t. It’s not the same as seeing a post on Facebook about the war, which you can just slide away.”

And it draws you in. Curatorial attention for Mr. Hafez’s work was fast and furious in the wake of his inclusion in City-Wide Open Studios in 2015, an event spotlighting over 300 New Haven artists and staged every October by Artspace, a local nonprofit gallery. Influential reviewers at both the daily New Haven Independent and the city’s culture-focused Arts Paper praised Mr. Hafez’s piece for the Open Studios event.

Frauke Josenhans, the curator of “Artists in Exile” and the Yale University Art Gallery’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, was one of many who soon came calling. For Ms. Josenhans, who is accustomed to today’s sculptors farming out much of their time-intensive labor to fabricators, à la Jeff Koons, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Mr. Hafez was a solo act.

“I visited his studio and was completely fascinated by this universe he’s created from little objects and bric-a-brac,” Ms. Josenhans said. “It illustrates the ongoing conflict in Syria, but it is not only a political work. It is also deeply personal and reflects what it means to not be able to return to a country you grew up in, to be separated from the family and friends you love because of political circumstances.”

The Open Studios event wasn’t the first time Mr. Hafez exhibited his models, but it was the debut of a new approach, one that eschewed picture-perfect classical structures from a mythologized ancient Damascus for one that evoked the city’s current apocalyptic setting. This shift was the result of a 2011 layover in Damascus. Although Mr. Hafez has a green card, visa snafus turned a six-day visit into a six-week stay. It was also the beginning of the Arab Spring’s reach into Syria.

As demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad erupted in the country’s southern cities, the once-unimaginable idea of democratic change seemed deliriously possible. “My whole family watched the TV as if we were witnessing aliens landing on earth,” Mr. Hafez recalled. Yet he also saw a column of tanks roll out of a military base near his parents’ home and ominously rumble south.

Back in New Haven, Mr. Hafez followed the news as Syria became wracked by civil war. To date, more than one out of three Syrians have fled their homes (including much of Mr. Hafez’s family, who have resettled in Sweden), and over 400,000 have been killed. “I was devastated seeing these millennia-old cities being bombed out of existence, the amount of death every day, the brute force they were using against the revolution,” he said. For almost two years he set his artwork aside. “Then, all of I sudden, I burst! These were my artistic sneezes,” he said of the resulting works embodying a now-destroyed cityscape. “If technology existed to 3-D print our emotions, my 3-D printer would make these things.”

While Mr. Hafez is immensely proud to have his work, “Baggage Series #4,” featured in “Artists in Exile” alongside pieces by figures like Shirin Neshat and Kurt Schwitters, the show’s title leaves him uneasy: To call oneself an exile implies an intention to return to one’s native country.

“Such a mind-set means you’re not invested in your current country,” he explained. “I don’t like that way of living. I consider myself a Syrian-American. My wife is an American citizen. This is home. I’m invested in building a future here.”

Nytimes

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