14 Sep AiroAV Antivirus Announces: Miniature Sculptor Mohamad Hafez Explores How Multiple…
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…