"You will change the face of this world. You will decide how we move on from here," Syrian artist and architect Mohamad Hafez told students in his all-school convocation Tuesday in the Olcott Center.
Originally from Damascus, and having traveled widely throughout his youth and young adulthood, Mr. Hafez is the first convocation speaker on this year's school theme, Globalization. Mr. Hafez's artwork, inspired by his middle class family's personal experiences, reflects the impact of Syria's long and complicated civil war on his people and homeland, from the destruction of ancient heritage sites to humanitarian disasters, including the refugee crisis.
Concerned that Syrian refugees fleeing violence and oppression have become unwelcome worldwide, Mr. Hafez has reached out to a wide audience, including many young people, to counter the fear perpetuated by media information and images of Syrians. Now a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, Mr. Hafez shares his homeland's history, cityscapes, and diverse cultural influences with audiences to demonstrate that Syria is comprised of individuals with families, daily lives, and hopes for the future that mirror much of the rest of the world. Syrian people should not be discriminated against simply for the passport they carry, he said.
Mr. Hafez introduced his Loomis audience to Syria and its people with photographic images. Beginning with widely recognizable media images that stereotype the Syrians, Mr. Hafez displayed pictures of bomb blasts and some of Syria's architectural heritage sites in ruins, comparing them before-and-after-style with intact structures. He showed pictures of the wounded and the dead and their grieving families and vulnerable refugees, including children, in desperate escape. He juxtaposed these images with pictures of his own family, their home, and their previous idyllic family lifestyle — on family vacations, gathered for meals, and sitting in their living room — when they lived in Damascus.
His family members are now spread around the world, seeking secure employment and safety for their families, he said. In a particularly poignant moment, Mr. Hafez told of some members of his family fleeing Syria and living in much-reduced circumstances, settled in a tiny village in Norway. Mr. Hafez was struck, he said, by the realization that his young niece and nephew, depicted as smiling toddlers in his presentation, are Syrian refugees like the children seen in the news risking, and sometimes losing, their lives trying to escape.
At the end of his presentation, Mr. Hafez appealed to the students to consider what they had learned and seen in his presentation as they will be the decision-makers going forward in our global community.
Mr. Hafez's artwork has been featured in highly acclaimed exhibitions and includes sculpture and large, three-dimensional installations comprised of found objects, paint, and scrap metal, many with expressions of hope written in Arabic calligraphy and some that include audio. According to his website, Mr. Hafez's work expresses "the juxtaposition of East and West within him ... and the political turmoil in the Middle East. Using his architectural skills, [he] creates surrealistic Middle Eastern streetscapes that are architectural in their appearance yet politically charged in their content."
Mr. Hafez's story and work are apt introductions to school-themed programming this year because they present the dichotomy of East and West and examine globalization in human terms, said Alec McCandless, the Christopher H. Lutz director of the Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies. Mr. Hafez will return to the Island on a number of occasions this year as a Visiting Artist to collaborate with Loomis students on an installation in the Richmond Art Center.
After his presentation, Mr. Hafez engaged with students in Molly Pond's Global Human Rights class, and Ludmila Zamah's Arabic language class. His visit was made possible through the Hubbard Speakers Series, a gift from Robert P. Hubbard '47. For more information, connect to the artist's website.