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.”