Syrian-American artist Mohamad Hafez uses plaster, rigid foam, paint and found objects to create three dimensional architectural streetscapes, installations and wall murals of his native Syria that are deeply personal, photorealistic and surreal. Expressing the juxtaposition of East and West within him, Hafez’s art represents the urban fabric of the Middle East, and serves as a backdrop for his own political and social expression. His solo exhibition ‘Unsettled Nostalgia’ runs through February 27 at the harts gallery.
Mohamad Hafez believes that architecture is the physical indicator of a city’s prosperity and paradoxically, the obvious physical indicator of devastation. Responding to the atrocities of the Syrian war, much of his work draws parallels between the heavy military presence in the Middle East and the demolished lives and infrastructure beneath that presence. The work draws comparisons between the vulgar, luxurious lives that tyrants live and the deprived state of their nations.
In deliberate contrast to the violence, however, his art also imbues a subtle hopefulness through the incorporation of verses from the Qur’an. These verses are at the core of Hafez’s vision, endeavoring to kindle hope and raise spirits in the midst of so much devastation. Scenes reiterate narratives from the Qur’an in order to affirm that, even during the darkest of times, patience is necessary for the blossoming of life, and eventually, justice will prevail.
Hafez is deeply interested in a cross-disciplinary exploration of street art and realistic (yet ironic) sculptural representation. He purposefully draws a contrast between the scenes he creates and the messages contained in them. These messages could be verses from the Qur’an or sound recordings from his own pre-war trips to Syria. Qur’anic calligraphy is oftentimes presented as spray painted revolutionary slogans or an audio loop from a hidden source, defying the iron fist of dictatorial regimes through a simple act of free expression.
The strength of Hafez’s work is that it immerses viewers in the present while simultaneously taking them on a trip to the not-so-distant past: pre-war Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Recreating ancient neighborhoods that no longer exist with astounding accuracy, and without inhabitants, Hafez sheds light on one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern day history; a crisis so grim that many choose not to acknowledge it and can no longer bear witness to its daily atrocities.
“Praise be to God…” Used in prosperous times and also in times of difficulty, Hafez was always attracted to the will power needed to pronounce such a phrase in hard times. He pays homage to the strength of civilians forced to shelter in decrepit structures targeted daily by bombs, or torn tents in the middle of the Arabian desert, traveling halfway across the globe to piece together what has been left of their lives. “Praise be to God…” the simple words coming out of a mother that has just lost all her children in an air strike. The irony adds a deeper meaning to existence and a deep respect to strong, enduring souls during times of calamity.
In Arab culture, when anemone blossoms out of battlefields, it is said to represent the blood shed by martyrs fighting for freedom. The rich red color of the flowers emerges from the rubble in Hafez’s cities, instigating remembrance of the precious price of change, and leaving a glimmer of hope for tomorrow.
The harts gallery is an artist-run space focused on building community and inspiring transformation, through a robust amalgamation of contemporary art exhibitions, workshops, live performances and community programming.
The harts gallery
20 Bank Street, New Milford, Connecticut 06776
Open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 12-8, Sundays 12-3 or by appointment