A Colossal Interview
Mohamad Hafez On The Multiple Identities That Inform His Art and His Investment in Education
September 14, 2020
Colossal contributor Laura Staugaitis spoke with artist Mohamad Hafez in August 2020 via Zoom. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Laura: What are you currently working on?
Mohamad: As of this past summer, I decided to put more emphasis and more time into my art. I’m also trying to branch out on my own and do some entrepreneurial work. I’m actually, believe it or not, starting a passion project I’ve always wanted to do. I just finished a coffee shop/chocolatier/patissier. It’s not your typical coffee shop. When you walk into it, you think it looks like a French baroque salon, which all stems from nostalgia for a lot of the amazing nights we had at my home in Damascus, where my mom’s furniture and her salon is very French kind of just feel: carved wood, elaborate chandeliers, and all sorts of shenanigans. So I grew up with that aesthetic. And I’ve always wanted to have my own cultural salon here in the United States.
It’s very common in the Arab world. Actually, it’s called the majlis. This is not a new concept for us. Hospitality is very important in the Gulf countries. Each family has a majlis, hosting almost twice a week, and they just open their doors. It’s known that Mohamad’s majlis is open every Tuesday night, Laura’s open every Wednesday night, and so on. People just show up, and there will be food and drink, and they sit and socialize. And so for a long time, I’ve tried hosting in my house, and it got old—you want to go home to a safe haven and breathe and relax, not clean up after people. But it’s in my blood that I love hosting.
Laura: This place that you opened—will there be employees who are staffing it or is it more just about a separate space for you to do your thing?
Mohamad: There will be employees. Part of it looks like a coffee shop, and it’s open to the public in the daytime. You come in, and you get your croissant and Syrian Balaclava, Syrian coffee, or American coffee. It doesn’t matter. We have all that jazz. We will also have yummy Syrian food and Middle Eastern food. People will be working the coffee bar, and then I show up probably in the middle of the day just to check on things, make sure the quality is right. These activities I’m talking about are more like after 6 and 7 p.m. It’s in New Haven, in a neighborhood called Westville. It’s called Pistachio.
Laura: That’s really exciting that you’ve been focusing more on your artwork. I was curious to hear more about the relationship between your identities as an architect and an artist.
Mohamad: None of this was planned. It’s just the way things worked out. For almost a decade and a half, I was a corporate architect—“Mr. Suit,” designing tall skyscrapers with a firm here. I built a couple of buildings. Been there, done that. But what really changed me is my artwork. And particularly with things that touch on touchy issues and seeing how people have been reacting, engaging, and frankly, seeing an immense demand on demand for folks to learn about us. When I say “us,” I do check the box on so many categories: I am an Arab. I am Muslim. I am Syrian. I am an immigrant and a brother of a refugee. The times we live in, with all the Islamophobia and xenophobia, with immigrants and refugees, and the Middle East in general, folks want people to relate to here, and they want to learn more about these cultures.
“Art taught me that it’s a medium that goes so far left and so far right. It doesn’t see any political boundaries, and it reaches a wide audience if it’s done right.”— Mohamad Hafez
And so when we did “Unpacked: Refugee Baggage,” it was astonishing. Art taught me that it’s a medium that goes so far left and so far right. It doesn’t see any political boundaries, and it reaches a wide audience if it’s done right. There’s something about changing people’s hearts and minds through art that kind of woke me up a little bit in the sense that I realized that my spot in this world is not so much being a corporate architect spending a hundred hours a week on a shiny tall building. How many architects out there are actually also Muslim-Arab-Syrian-brothers to refugees-immigrants themselves? There comes with this a sense of responsibility to humanize and build cultural bridges between people.
What the art taught me was that what I did on a miniature scale is the crux of why I wanted to do this salon—to build it on a normal scale. I’m not only putting people in front of my miniature artwork, but I’m bringing them into a space where you know from the outside, there’s nothing that smells or looks Middle Eastern at all. They get the coffee shop that’s extremely modern French European looking. It’s not until you go inside that you pick up on so much of this commonality that you realized that the amazing meal you just had was cooked by a refugee chef here in New Haven, and the bakery items are made by Sanctuary Kitchen, an amazing initiative that hires all refugee chefs from all over the world. And they’re living here side by side. They are our neighbors.
We’ll have merchandise as well to tell these stories. The coffee that I’m getting is single-sourced from places in the world that we don’t know much about, like Yemen. There will be literature and posters to tell you about that world. I’m kind of subtle like that. I don’t like putting things in people’s faces, but I do like creeping on people’s imaginations because I know the demand is there. If you just put that information out there, people will actually read and investigate, and hopefully, they reach out to ask you a few more questions. It’s a place where you’re very welcome to sit and stay. It’s not your typical chain, the kind of grab and go, or sit uncomfortably on our uncomfortable chairs. I spent a fortune getting the furniture in there [laughs]. You’ll feel like you’re in a very chic salon. I hope it works. We’ll see.
Laura: How did you start working in the miniature medium?
Mohamad: I think that just started by coincidence because the whole thing started when I was in architecture school. I’m not trained as an artist—I can’t paint worth two cents. The medium at hand was model making; we built a lot of models. So that homesickness and nostalgia, for a student who couldn’t go home for a decade, being stuck here on a single entry student visa, that got me to say, “Quit whining and do something about it.” So one day I just put a couple of model-making scraps together and boom! There was a facade that looked like it belonged to Syria, and I found that very enjoyable and therapeutic and cathartic. Of course, back then, I was young and naive and did not even know the meaning of cathartic or therapeutic, but I knew that it felt good.
Laura: When you create each scene or diorama, are you envisioning a specific narrative for that, or is it a more abstract representation of someone’s experience?
Mohamad: Very rarely a specific thing. A lot of times it might stem out of a quote I’m stenciling on the piece or a verse of the Quran that I start with: “Okay, I’m going to feature you here.” But everything else literally organically just grows around it over time. The process also lends itself to this kind of spontaneity because I’m working on several pieces at a single time. Not one. And I’m moving from one to the other, trying to get that amount of detail, so that when I get back to it, a month has passed, and I’ve forgotten completely. So I can highlight areas that need more detail.
I love that part about my work that it takes like ten months to finish a piece, and by the time the work is done, I have moments where I’m studying a piece and wondering, ‘How did I do that?’— Mohamad Hafez
And it helps, of course, that I’m working on a creative cloud, zoned out. I’m not physically giving a lot of memory to what I’m doing. I love that part about my work that it takes like ten months to finish a piece, and by the time the work is done, I have moments where I’m studying a piece and wondering, “How did I do that?” or, “That looks really cool.”
Laura: How do you decide when something is done?
Mohamad: Over the years, these pieces tend to have their own charisma and character. That sounds crazy, but they tell you: “Don’t touch me. Get the heck away.” My weakness is for that hyperrealism.
And that’s why I also invest so much in photography. I have my own photographers that document this, and they spend half a day just setting up the lighting and the scenes and getting their reflections right. And our goal is to get that money shot. This is the fussy architect inside me. The money shot is that you show it to your mom or dad, and they go, “Oh cool, what city is just that?” and you say, “Oh, it’s hanging on Mohamad’s wall.” [laughs] That makes my day when I hear that. That means that really the work is done.
Laura: Is the rest of your family in the States?
Mohamad: Currently, they are. Yeah, I mean we come and go. Our family is mostly American citizens now at this point. But we’re also an international displaced family. I have three other siblings, and each one is in a different country. My parents are here right now. It’s not easy, and not by choice, but it’s just doing how things worked out over the war years.
Laura: Are other people in your family similarly creative? Are you kind of an outlier?
Mohamad: Not really. My oldest brother is a computer engineer and a CEO for his own company. He’s very business-oriented. My older sister runs a company with her husband. My youngest sister is also an architect. But she doesn’t practice right now. We’re like that old-school mentality of you’d better study something that the parents approve of—law school or medicine. Most of us do engineering. Architecture is considered engineering back home. Not that I’m not passionate about architecture. It is a real passion for me.
Now that my art is recognized, and it’s showing up all over the world, my parents proudly say, “Yeah, he’s my son.” But had I done that like 15 years ago, “Mom, I want to be an artist.” “What do you mean you want to be an artist?” My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only the Syrian version of that.
For twelve years, I did my artwork completely in secret alongside my corporate life to kind of cope with all the craziness that I was noticing and witnessing back home and all the war and trauma that affected us. So my escape was my art and for many years, the only people that saw my art were my parents. For many years, my mom would say, “Stop doing this art! It’s very dark! It’s very gruesome. It’s war, destruction—make something happy.”
A few years later, I show up to the world with the body of work that spans 12 years. The New Yorker picks it up. The New York Times picks it up, The Guardian and so on… [laughs]. And then my mom’s language starts shifting: “Yes, I told him, keep doing this. It’s very nice work.” [laughs]
Laura: What shifted for you that made you decide to make more public work?
Mohamad: I think a lot of it was just realizing that there’s a big need for another narrative out there. The narrative that was being portrayed in the media in general or big politicians and heads of states as we see today… Whether it’s about Muslims or Syrians or immigrants. And the circles that I was in: talk about skyscraper world down in Houston—of course, back then, I did not look anything like this. I was clean-shaven: “Mo! Moritizio. He’s Italian. He speaks with an accent. He’s very unique.” You heard things in small closed circles with a bunch of billionaires that design these things or approve these buildings. It’s that realization of wow, there’s a lot of work to be done, you know. At the very least, you’re like, really? Really? I mean, we’ve worked together for 10 or 12 years now, and you think Syrians are like this? Or Muslims are really like that? You really think I live in a tent with a camel? I’ll deal with it with humor, but also let me tell you who we are.
So I started wanting to share more. And in fact, by the grace of God, I’ve had so many exhibits now, but the goal is not exhibiting the work in itself. The goal was the artist talk that comes after the exhibit. Most of the time I opened my exhibits for two or three weeks, let it run, and let curiosity build up of, “Who the heck is this guy?” And then I come. I do long artist talk where the script of that is about 30% art and about 70% humanizing: sharing photos from my childhood from Damascus, from our house in Damascus, from before and after, and where we are today. That I can control: I can speak on behalf of my family and say we’re not an anomaly. Here’s a sample: we’re middle-class people like anybody else. But this is how our life is. And you’d be surprised at the amount of stares and shocks, though I’m not sharing it in a lecturing way, just stating the facts. My mom doesn’t wear the headscarf. My sisters wear the headscarf. Our neighbors are Christian. We are Muslim. My father’s 80-years-old, and he was breastfed by a Jewish lady. We have mosques right next to churches right next to synagogues in Damascus. We have crystal chandeliers and marble floors in our house. You’ll be surprised. And sometimes those surprised folks are professors at university.
Moments like this really just give me more push to keep doing what I’m doing and sharing. And honestly, it was scary as hell to leave my profession. Until this very day, most of my architecture colleagues don’t understand why I did that. It’s very unorthodox to have designed and built a skyscraper under 30 years old. To have that kind of exposure at an early age and having a career that’s just skyrocketing up. And then I pop a u-turn in the middle of the road and say, “Thank you so much. Not interested.”
Most people say, “You’re stupid. This is professional suicide.” But folks that know me better and know the art and know what I’m trying to do here see the other side. I find myself in two different worlds, most of the time the art world. The artists that are activists, media folks, they understand what I’m talking about.
Architects, on the other hand, most of them, if they’re deep in the corporate world and very systematic, it doesn’t make sense because it’s dollars and numbers, and how much are you bringing in? Not how you quantify my effect on society today. It’s not, “How many buildings have you built?” That’s a question people ask. Corporate architects are vicious to each other. They’re like lawyers to each other. It’s true. I’m very critical of the profession, and I’m very outspoken against it. And I do that because I’ve been there, done that, built skyscrapers, and left that world.
That life is nothing to be proud of or to push our new generation. I feel sad for architects that are spending 80 hours a week at their desks when they’re trying to design for a society that they’re not part of. Fetishizing glass and marble and so on. Beauty is nice. I get it. Design is important. I get it. I’ve done it. But it’s not everything in life. It is not our position as movers and shakers of society. So many of us can do a lot more than designing fancy-looking concrete and glass for the top one percent. We could put our skill a lot more in society. And unfortunately, that’s not the status quo in our profession right now. And so I said, “Hasta luego.”
Laura: When an industry is so white and so male-dominated where that question of “who am I outside of work?” doesn’t really factor in in the same way because everything in your whole world is built for you, for white guys, and so you don’t understand that conflict of having different dimensions of experience.
Mohamad: I went under the radar. I can pass, and the things that I’ve heard in these male-dominated, macho, big ego, big suit meetings… it was a circus. I’m really glad I had that experience because a lot of us have that grass-is-greener mentality, and you want to be that Mr. Designer bossing around 20 people, having these big projects. When you reach that summit you’re like, “Oh gosh, people that are up here are really disgusting.” [laughs]
I’m glad I reached this, but this is not my comfort zone. I’m going to go live with my buddies. But it’s very important for you to get that kind of experience to be able to say, “Not interested. Thank you.” Otherwise, the first people that will chew you up are your architectural colleagues, saying, “You’re out. Who are you to criticize our profession? What have you done?”
But then if you can point to a few skyscrapers on the Americans’ skyline. they go, “Okay. We will listen.” I had shut up for a decade in order to build the credibility to criticize loudly. I couldn’t do it earlier. So once that’s done that, once people knew me as Mr. Architect and Designer…
Then, and it just so happened that the world in 2015-2016 was dealing with the refugee crisis, the Arab Spring, the Syrian War, and so on. It aligned—I averaged maybe 12 or 13 exhibits in one. It just so happened that I believed in what I do, and the demand is out there to do this work.
Laura: You’ve done so much in educational spaces, workshops, and schools. Is there a reason that you feel drawn to being in that space?
Mohamad: Coming out from the corporate world, I feel like my chance of changing all the minds that have already been set is a lot less than my chance of getting the youngsters to change their minds. So that’s why I started focusing on educational outlets: high schools, private academies, and universities. I’m so glad I did that because it’s such a fulfilling experience. Kids are fresh and young. They’re not that opinionated, and they’re willing to listen. These are our future leaders. Because I’m only one man and I can only do so much, I’d much rather invest that time to be most efficient. Education was the best way to do it, particularly when you have art and activism and education. So that has been working. I love it.
Unfortunately, I was supposed to spend this whole year working with students at the University of Chicago. But then the pandemic showed up. I had opened a huge studio in Chicago to welcome and work with students.
Laura: Do you have a next thing on your horizon now that you’ve got the salon almost ready to open?
Mohamad: The salon initiative is going to be a long one. And the University of Chicago project is not done—it’s a longer one, and we’re coming up with an even more exciting project with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which could turn into a two- or three-year project in itself. That’s a project that I’m really excited about. The Oriental Institute had led so many archaeological digs in our region: Iraq, Mesopotamia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and in their building in Chicago, they have about 200,000 objects in their archive. Currently, I have my artwork on display in that museum, and we’re thinking about marrying their artifacts with my art. The way we’re doing that is we’re taking the artifacts from our region, scanning them at high-resolution, 3D print them, and I’m painting them to look like real stone and marble and incorporating them, replicating them in architectural scenes that I build to educate kids and the new generations about this immense architectural wealth and heritage that they come from.
“If you’re raised and educated outside of the region, nobody is going to teach you about your cultural roots, that you come from something very precious and you should be proud and willing, at least, to rebuild and carry the baton.”— Mohamad Hafez
Unfortunately, if you’re a refugee today or from any of these countries, there isn’t much to be proud of from the current moment. And if you’re raised and educated outside of the region, nobody is going to teach you about your cultural roots, that you come from something very precious and you should be proud and willing, at least, to rebuild and carry the baton. It goes along with my focus on education and rebuilding the generations. Education about that art and culture and architectural wealth is a main goal for me.
The work I’m doing with the Oriental Institute is going to be wonderful. I can’t wait to really start doing that. It got delayed a little bit with the virus. But, you know, hopefully, things will pick up later, and we’ll get going at full speed. The goal is to ultimately build a traveling exhibit. If you were to imagine walking into a space and seeing 12-foot wide murals, and each mural would educate you about each country. So you’d have a mural Damascus, where you see all these amazing archaeological gems in a collage, in my typical miniature, high-detailed style with sounds built in so that it’s multimedia. You’re hearing voices from these areas from before the conflict. And then you’re moving on to learn about Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, all of these war-torn countries that have so much culture. So, that’s the goal for the next four to five years, I hope. It’s a huge undertaking.
To follow Hafez’s miniature scenes, education-oriented projects, and new coffee shop, head to Instagram.