BURLINGTON, Vt. — There’s something poetic about the double life of Mohamad Hafez. As an architect with the firm Pickard Chilton in New Haven, he designs office towers by day, and by night builds tiny, intricate scenes of urban devastation. The split is between future and past, projection and memory, here and there: Hafez, who is Syrian-American, may have a day job looking forward, but as an artist he’s always looking back to the ruins of a life, and a country, he long ago left behind.
Hafez is just one of a dozen artists in “Small Worlds,” an exhibition at the Fleming Musuem of Art, at the University of Vermont, which closes May 10. It’s a dizzying selection of miniature works, notable mostly for the artists’ ability to work at so fussy a scale. Takiko Ida’s and Pierre Javelle’s photographs show tiny golfers teeing off on doughnut sprinkles, or wee hard-hatted workers relocating raisins; Thomas Doyle’s little dioramas of tract homes, either being squeezed by converging walls of stone or swallowed by creeping vines, spark disbelief at the intricacy of his craft as much as they inspire contempt for suburban life, as I think he intends.
But Hafez’s work, to me, offers something deeper than a captivating “How?” His three sculptural pieces here look like firebombed dollhouses, hastily reconstructed from memory, charred bits and all. There’s something powerful, compulsive, futile about them — a Syrian artist, long gone from his ruined homeland, trying to put things back together the only way that he can.
The works wobble the emotions of even the sternest of souls: They are portraits of cities like Aleppo and Damascus, where Hafez was born, reduced to rubble and roughly re-animated — an urban-planning version of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, released to lope back out into the world, zombie-like, somewhere between alive and dead.
One piece, “Hiraeth,” from 2017, feels unnervingly personal. It takes for its title a Welsh term that doesn’t translate to English; it means something like an inconsolable longing for a place that no longer exists. It’s the largest of his three works here, and there’s something almost desperate about it, the physical embodiment of grief. Gravity, and scale, don’t apply; a three-wheeled bicycle sits parked on dusty cobblestones in front of Arabic script emblazoned on a cracked wall; in another section of the piece, string lights and laundry dangle high overhead. At its heart sits a cracked and battered minaret, lending an air of precarity. It feels like the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment.
It left me thinking about the brutal task of reconstructing trauma from memory, an inexact pursuit for the reason of the trauma itself. The work feels urgent and panicked, fragments cobbled in a fit of grief. Hafez’s sculptures are snapshots less of real places than of the fallibility of memory staggered by violence. They embody a desperate attempt to capture whatever remains, however fragmented and marred, before it slips away entirely.
A relatively recent arrival to the art world — the late 2017 exhibition “Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope,” at Yale, served as something of a coming-out party — Hafez has been quick to make an impact. His works are both expertly made and profoundly topical, and I find them heartening in spite of their despair.
Hafez is surely not the first artist to grapple with the cataclysms of unending war, but he does it with a captivating balance of urgency and grace. His works are simple, often stark, but not obvious: In “Internal Conflict,” from 2014, broken shards of concrete wall protrude from their base, staggered like specimens. The work is oddly serene, almost formal; the composition is balanced and less haphazard than others.
But then, the details: The wall fragments bear floral motifs at the windows and decorative dentil patterning at their cornices despite their jagged bombed-out edges — evidence of life, and of care, amid the destruction. On each side, a ragged flag flies: One red, one green, their insignias almost identical — the razor-thin line of the Syrian civil war, and the autocrat who incited it.
A final piece of his, “Damascene Athan” (“athan” is the Muslim call to prayer; “Damascene” sites it in Damascus), is his newest work here. Made in 2018, it’s less ordered, less architectural, and more accretive, tangled, chaotic. It’s a natural progression, maybe — scattered memory swallowed by insoluble confusion, a quagmire grown more ingrained and less comprehensible by the day.
Step back and you’ll see that the scene is mounted on the face of an ornate mirror, oval and framed with arabesque motifs. A favorite Victorian decorative convention, the mirror refers to the Western-inspired trappings of privilege Hafez remembers before the war. It’s as though the mirror can no longer simply reflect the horrors that pass in front of it, and is now retching forth an accumulation of disasters — a fire hydrant, denuded trees, a dangling bucket, spirals of rebar twisting out from a broken roadway.
Hafez’s small worlds are feats to be sure, but their scale is not for its own sake. By making things tiny, he demands we look closely at something most have only seen through the long camera’s-eye view of TV news, and in passing. His is a view from beneath the wreckage, and close up, digging his way back to the surface.
SMALL WORLDS: MINIATURES IN CONTEMPORARY ART
At Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, 61 Colchester Ave, Burlington, Vt. Through May 10. 802-656-3131, www.uvm.edu/flemingMurray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.