Mohamad Hafez

USA: A Nation of Immigrants by artist Mohamad Hafez confronts the viewer with a power that is apparent, yet ambiguous, and a challenge that reflects its genesis and profound implications. The paired set of pieces is a new installation at the Keller Center, home of the Harris School of Public Policy.

“Giving Mohamad the freedom to do a commissioned work, in collaboration with Harris students and staff, was an idea that started before COVID to deepen his understanding of the DNA of Harris,” said Misho Ceko, Chief Operating Officer at Harris. “He spoke with students and staff before the pandemic; the lockdown gave him more time to work on the piece, which is now part of the Keller Center’s permanent collection.”

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Misho Ceko, Chief Operating Officer at Harris

The installation of USA: A Nation of Immigrants aligns with this year’s selected reading for the Harris Common Read, Streets of Gold: America's Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan. The artwork and reading raise questions about how dislocation—forced or by choice—threatens fundamental touchstones of identity and home. Resulting discord and suffering require that we acknowledge the importance of place, and the moral obligations we have to one another to respect our sense of self in community. 

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The Art of Mohamad Hafez at the Keller Center

Art has been a focal point of the Keller Center since its opening in 2019. Hafez’s exhibition, UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage, was its first major installation. The exhibition gave material dimension and meaning to the Harris mission through questions that emerge by claiming immigrant and refugee status: moving one’s home, dislocating one’s sense of self, shifting identity and allegiances, culture and way of life have enormous consequences for an individual, family, and community and, if we allow for it, richly complex potential for transforming the larger story of humanity’s journey. What better reference point for the task of creating and guiding public policy?

Inside the opened suitcases of refugees from around the world, UNPACKED displayed found objects fashioned into scenes that live in the memories of people forced to flee their homes: bombed out, bloodied rooms; deserted, devastated street scenes; the threatening presence of a government surveillance vehicle marring the tranquil beauty of centuries-old architecture and ornamentation. It’s easy to view these scenes from conventional, traditional tropes: the plight of immigrants and refugees who have escaped littered ruins of an old world for a clean slate of safety and opportunity.

The phrase “a nation of immigrants” carries the gravity and imaginative force of history, and calls to mind “The New Colossus” sonnet of Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The contentious climate of national debate regarding immigration—at times approaching hysteria in defensive misrepresentation and angst—questions this premise: a reminder that, as in Lazarus’ poem, its meaning in Hafez’s installation is subtle and complex, not reflected in the physical landscape alone, but in living relationship with the landscape of the body, mind, and heart.

"There are people who love to purify themselves, and God loves the performers of Kindness.” (Quran 9:108)

In this way, Hafez’s new piece boldly presents the viewer with new questions. Each of the paired set includes a verse from the Quran written like graffiti across a streetscape; though on the surface appearing similar, each leaves a distinct energetic impression. "There are people who love to purify themselves, and God loves the performers of Kindness.” (Quran 9:108) is the verse on the left, and objects used in the piece serve as tools for the act of cleansing: a colander, funnel, and bristle brush. The automobile centering the piece encapsulates the sense of isolation, removal, or escape. There is a somewhat withdrawn and slightly aggressive aura around the piece, suggesting that the focus on personal cleansing sometimes requires both a preoccupation with self and the exclusion of others—something that became a familiar theme, and uneasy reality, during COVID. That “God loves performers of Kindness” seems a reminder to temper the preoccupation with purifying the self with generosity toward others.

"Is there any Reward for Kindness—other than Kindness in return?” (Quran 55:60)

The work on the right is similar in its structure and the upward trajectory of its design—as if the pieces are striving, perhaps seeking transcendence or, with the piece on the right, with its long, vertical incandescent light bulbs, seeking to illuminate or serve as a beacon. The inscription on this piece reads, "Is there any Reward for Kindness—other than Kindness in return?” (Quran 55:60). The piece has a gentler, more welcoming feel—a surprising distinction, given the similarity of the paired set.  

Between Hafez’s first and second installation are four years encompassing a global, deadly pandemic and all the ways this universal danger precipitated universal waves of uncertainty and vulnerability; isolation and communal loyalties; who was inside and who outside; who had and did not have access to healthcare, food, and shelter. Instead of the intimate, detailed specificity of earlier pieces, of scenes in place and time, Hafez’s new piece confronts us with ourselves; daring us with the imperative to observe, and devise our own meaning and understanding, when nothing is a given save for quotations from the Quran that serve as moral guideposts. What is the deepest significance of our experience and perspective? What is our responsibility to our own reflections? And what is our responsibility to reflect on the experience and perspectives of others?

Hafez came to the United States from Syria in 2003 to study architecture at Iowa State University. Travel restrictions in the wake of the September 11 attacks prohibited him from returning to his home and visiting his family for eight years. This period of forced separation, of intense loneliness and longing, informed artwork, including his UNPACKED series, that expressed nostalgia for places in the past.

When asked about the companion pieces, which Hafez sees as one artwork, he disclosed that they were created in an almost dream-like state of suspension—the suspension of life as usual—in awe or shock. The original plan was to develop the piece as part of a larger project with students at Harris; plans that, like so many aspects of life, cascaded and dissolved in the wake of the pandemic. Instead, the piece was created in isolation, in New Haven, where he lives, and shipped to the Keller Center. Hafez notes, “The piece was very different from my typical work—a new realm. A lot of people were in limbo, floating, lost—and nostalgic. Typically, there is a frame or border, like the suitcases, around my work. The piece is vague; a lot of the objects don’t make sense. COVID showed the importance of things we take for granted. We are creatures of communication and relationship; we can’t be in isolation without going bonkers.”

During COVID, the brief documentary about his work published by The New Yorker—about being separated from home and family—gained popularity. Hafez wanted the piece to pay homage to people in the US who were dealing with painful separations. “It’s not a Syrian experience,” he said, “it’s a human experience.”

Hafez went on to say, “If 3D printers could encompass emotions, my 3D printer would be spitting out these things like an AI prompt. At the time, I spit out a jumble of feelings, with a minimal sense of authorship.” The work seems to have been created through a process in the collective unconscious, compelling the artist from forces outside himself, for which he served as the conduit, a channel. 

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“Shifting context is a challenge that forces me to re-establish myself”

Interviews with two people at Harris—David Sami, a graduate student in the Department of Visual Arts, and Dana Bozeman, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion—illuminate ways the piece, and responses to art at the Keller Center, radiate out, inspiring reflection and thoughtful discussion.

Sami is a Coptic Christian, the largest community of Christians in the Middle East and the largest minority community—a marginalized, sometimes persecuted community—in Egypt. He emigrated with his family from Egypt through the Diversity Visa Program when he was ten years old. Living in the US, his family watched as the Arab Spring unfolded on television from 2010 to 2015. They had to come to terms with the instability, chaos and change, hearing about and perceiving events that affected them deeply, though they were happening to someone else.

Sami notes the importance of acknowledging point of view, who is telling the story, and the context for point of view. “Shifting context is a challenge that forces me to re-establish myself.” He talks about the ways a maquette piece, a model of a street in Syria, for example, is, in the work of Hafez, taken out of context and put on a white wall. Sami can envision the rough, weathered stone walls, and sees them as a way to bridge gaps by allowing someone to enter into an experience with a visceral response, more felt than spoken.

Echoing Hafez, Sami reiterated the power and pull of nostalgia, toward a past that no longer exists, but that lives in one’s memory with as compelling a presence and influence as events that transpire and shape one’s experience every day. “As an artist, I physicalize a memory; make it material,” says Sami. One can’t really go back. I work with nostalgia, with the past—for me, there’s no place to go back to.”

“You have to recognize your own deficits when trying to portray someone else’s story.”

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Dana Bozeman, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion

Dana Bozeman notes a similar approach to the display of artwork at the Keller Center and the Common Read project at Harris, which introduces a text to incoming students, as a common starting point to generate discussion and debate, and to build community cohesion among a student body from diverse backgrounds and regions across the globe.

In Hafez’s artwork, Bozeman sees beauty and tragedy, what is beautiful and what is broken, relating this seeming duality to the experience of an immigrant who feels obligated to be grateful for opportunities, but not free to be critical, to exercise their capacity to the fullest—and who has to hold this dual consciousness. Bozeman relates this duality, too, to the experience of immigrants, described in Streets of Gold: some enjoy tremendous success; some are disillusioned.

“The University of Chicago is about uplifting the life of the mind. Data is important, but numbers can tell different stories. How do we accurately reflect, rather than project, numbers?”

Bozeman goes on to ask, “What is not included in the story? You have to read with a critical eye, and to recognize your own deficits when you’re trying to portray someone else’s story.”

She shared that a second-year student noticed that Streets of Gold does not address the history and experience of enslaved people in the US. The word “importation” is used to note, in one brief reference, people who were brought to this country from Africa to provide labor as chattel slaves. “Importation is a sterile term,” Bozeman says, “describing people as human chattel. Importation is the language of objects, of property. For descendants of enslaved people, this story is one of purposeful erasure, demonstrating the tensions that we wrestle with when we tell stories, when we develop policies. When numbers, information are not to your advantage, what is unethical to hide?”

Bozeman notes the importance of examining our deeply held beliefs as a necessary starting point for doing policy work. Art assists in this process. The work is ever-present and stays in one’s consciousness even if students aren’t formally required to view and critique the work. The receptive and evocative presence of artwork stands in direct opposition to being oblivious to someone else’s reality.

Harris hosted the authors of Streets of Gold, Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan, at the Keller Center on October 25 to work through what represents and resonates, and what does not, in the book. During the event, the Harris community came together with the authors—with USA: A Nation of Immigrants in view—to explore the larger question of how we tell stories upon which public policy is made.

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