If you walk past the Fabrica in Brighton, in one of the windows you will notice an installation made of orange life jackets. It brings to mind media photographs and videos of people in little boats trying to cross the English Channel in order to get to relative safety. Inside the gallery, there is another installation with slogans in Arabic and English, including ‘NO Syrians’, or ‘I see a lot of humans, but not a lot of humanity’. As the news of the UK government’s scheme of ‘offshoring’ asylum seekers to Rwanda began to emerge a few weeks ago, the international community focused on the war in Ukraine are again reminded to also pay attention to reports of ongoing conflicts and human rights violations around the world including Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.
Mohamad Hafez’z exhibition titled Journeys from an Absent Present to A Lost Past opened a few weeks ago in Fabrica ahead of the upcoming Brighton Festival. 2022 Brighton Festival is co-directed by Marwa al-Sabouni and Tristan Sharps and this year’s theme is Rebuilt. Exhibited for the first time in the UK, the main body of Hafez’s exhibition consists of a series of dioramas depicting fictional landscapes based on the city of Damascus, accompanied by multimedia installations referencing refugees and their precarious status in their host countries.
Hafez was born in Syria and grew up in Saudi Arabia where his father worked for many years, before briefly returning to Damascus. Hafez travelled to the US in the early 2000s to study architecture, but the travel ban imposed post 9/11 meant he could not return to his homeland for years to come. He began making sculptural mixed-media artworks in an attempt to somehow cure his homesickness and capture his memories of Damascus as tangible objects. As time went by, the focus of his works shifted away from simple recording of memories in sculptural form. In the Oscar-nominated short documentary ‘A broken house’ the artist talked about how he noticed at some point that ‘people were so sick of seeing blood and bodies as a way to build empathy’, there was this need to ‘swipe away to next story’. Hafez realised that his art gave him the ability to start humanising refugees and to tell their stories.
Using found objects, scrap metal, plaster and paint the artist produces his meticulously detailed, small-scale 3D cityscapes. These works do not represent actual places but are self-contained micro-universes. They represent ideas of Syrian buildings and neighbourhoods. The majority of the works on display at the Fabrica gallery are mounted on walls and are set inside ornate picture and mirror frames. The frames do not completely contain the artworks, some elements are sticking out, which enhances the illusionism of those pieces. If it was not for their diminutive scale, one might imagine that these buildings were literally pulled out from the street, with pipes and concrete slabs projecting towards the sides.
Decorative frames are contrasted with the slightly surreal urban landscapes devoid of people, but the viewer can nevertheless see glimpses of everyday life. Clothes were left to dry on lines, a little empty food tray is resting on the floor. In the car parked in front of the building the driver left a window rolled down, maybe it was too hot. Someone sprayed graffiti on an air conditioner, there are painted signs ‘taxi’ and ‘no parking’.
I first encountered Hafez’s works during the 13th Cairo Biennale in 2019. The lifelike quality of his artworks is very memorable. Among the works presented at the Fabrica, wonderful attention to detail really comes to life in artful Islamic calligraphy featuring quotes from the Quran and in the traditional Middle Eastern architectural details, such as mashrabiya (window lattices) or decorative mouldings around doorways. In some of Hafez’s recent works, the dioramas are accompanied by audio recordings of city soundscapes: traffic sounds, people talking and calls for prayer. The Damascene Athan Series includes some of the audio recorded by the artist on his last visit to Damascus in 2011, just before the Syrian civil war started.
In the exhibition space tucked away in a corner the artist arranged a dining room area with a table, chairs and tea set. This is a nod to the traditional Middle Eastern hospitality, but upturned china cups signal that life has stopped here suddenly. An open suitcase placed right next to the table serves as a reminder of the displacement and uncertain future that refugees and forced migrants face wherever they happen to be. On the table are cards with a printed question: What is home to you?
Finally, the centrepiece of the show is the Tower of Dreams suspended from the ceiling. A beautiful object but also a representation of a deadly weapon. People’s lives and dreams are about to be destroyed, there is rubble and refugee boats.
Aside from his work as an architect and artist Mohamad Hafez also works with refugees as an interpreter. Many of his art projects are informed by personal accounts of people displaced by conflicts. By exhibiting these works internationally, the artist hopes to bring some of the stories to new audiences. He continues to spread awareness about the ongoing civil war in Syria.
This thought-provoking exhibition is a must see during this year’s Brighton Festival.
The artist’s website: http://www.mohamadhafez.com/
Check out the Brighton Festival programme here: https://brightonfestival.org/
The exhibition page on the gallery website, see here: https://www.fabrica.org.uk/journeys-from-an-absent-present-to-a-lost-past