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In many ways, Hafez’s sculptures index and are reflective of what the artist has chosen not to represent. This syllabus endeavors to address the histories and contemporary politics most pertinent to the concerns of Hafez’s practice. Along with this site’s open forum for student contributions and a gallery plan linked to object details, this visual syllabus offers avenues for viewers to engage with Hafez’s work amongst various and interrelated lines of inquiry.

Syrian-American Diasporas: Historical Resources and Interventions 


This section provides a historical context for the movements of Syrians from the late 19th-21st centuries through the lens of diaspora. Most simply defined, Kim Butler writes, diaspora is the dispersal of a people from its original “homeland” (a concept challenged by critical refugee studies). Historian Sarah Gualtieri highlights how transatlantic migration in the late Ottoman Empire was made possible by Syria’s integration into a capitalist world economy; however, Akram Khater explores the successful characterization in Dow v. United States (1915) of Syrians in the US as legally “white” (and therefore eligible for American citizenship) based on majority religion (Christianity). Lois Stonock has compiled a list of Syrian artist-run organizations since 2011, with many founded or active outside of Syria itself. Finally, historian Mohamed Talbi critiques the idea that any one voice could speak for “all Muslims” (especially when diasporic communities are accounted for) and the very idea of an Islamic political unity.

  • Butler, Kim D. "Defining diaspora, refining a discourse." Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 10 no. 2 (Fall 2001): 189-219.  

  • Gualtieri, Sarah. Ch. 1, "From Internal to International Migration." In Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

  • Lazaar, Lina. "Interview with Mohamed Talbi." In The Future of a Promise. Edited by Anthony Downey and Lina Lazaar. Tunis: Ibraaz Publishing, 2011. Exhibition catalogue.

  • Khater, Akram Fouad. "Becoming 'Syrian' in America: A Global Geography of Ethnicity and Nation." Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 14 no. 2/3 (Fall/Winter 2005): 299-331. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/dsp.0.0010

  • Stonock, Lois. "Mapping the Possible: Syrian Organizations, Movements and Platforms." In Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East. Edited by Anthony Downey. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016.

Critical "Crisis": Media, History, and the Contemporary


While Mohamad Hafez’s sculptures are largely bereft of human presence, images of people envelop his studio. The walls of his Westville, New Haven workshop are papered with photographs, much of them from mass media’s quest for humanitarian documentation of the “global refugee crisis.” Beginning with Hannah Arendt’s influential 1943 essay “We Refugees,” the selection of readings in this section track the construction of “refugee” as a political category of persons arising from 20th century international conventions (Lui, UNHCR)  and as an object of knowledge, Third World intervention, and humanitarian “aid” (Malkki, Puar, Westad).

Robyn Lui argues that refugeehood, rather than representing exceptional disorder, actually affirms a system of international order based on statehood. Both Rey Chow and Yen Le Espiritu emphasize the close relationship between institutional forms of knowledge such as refugee studies or Cold War-descended area studies and forms of militarized violence. Espiritu wishes to move away from understanding refugees as inherently “damaged," echoing Lui’s assertion that refugeehood is a product of – rather than challenge to – dominant ideas of national inclusion. Critical refugee studies, she argues, challenges the idea of the nation-state based on exclusivity of citizenship.

While Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’ and Elizabeth Kassab study Arab intellectual history before and after 1967 (the year Israeli forces defeated a coalition of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria), Samuel Huntington’s influential 1993 article paints a picture of essentialized civilizations in perpetual conflict. This seductive idea, Ervand Abrahamian argues, was taken up by post-9/11 US media to successfully withhold the topics of Palestine or occupation from public discussion. Meanwhile, the papers in Is Critique Secular? challenge the supposed opposition of Islam and liberal democratic values by undermining the very idea of rational Western secularism.

Visual Citations: The Postcolonial and the Postwar in the Sculptures of Mohamad Hafez


This section situates Hafez’s practice within the vexed geopolitics of the contemporary art world. While Leila Al-Shami relates the experiences of Syrians who must witness an unstoppable deluge of images of the country from afar, Anthony Downey critiques the simplistic understanding of art as “political” only if it overtly addresses politics. Instead Downey proposes that because forms of political participation are defined by perception, art can be an occasion for rethinking our world. Might artists not be the vanguard showing us the “beginning of the end” of the term “Middle East” itself?

Verònica Tello reads the ways in which refugee histories are embedded in contemporary art through “counter-memory,” that is, artistic strategies that resist the repression of histories of the disenfranchised. Geeta Kapur, in turn, looks back to the utopian dimensions of anti-imperialism in the mid-20th century to understand the variety of codes available to the postcolonial artist. An unquestioned celebration of exile and diaspora, she argues, ignores the real and material consequences of differences.

"Out of Rubble": Found Objects and Material Culture in Mixed Media Arts


This section takes its inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, which explores how “orientation” and objects affect how we understand living and being in the world. Orientation, Ahmed argues, involves feeling “at home” as well as “finding our way.” We learn what home means – how we occupy space as a home – only when we leave it. Thus, the readings here address two main themes: First, the idea of “cultural heritage” as the object of preservation as well as critique. Second, against the intangible grain of “heritage,” readings on assemblage (the artistic construction of objects from discarded or found materials) are inspired by the floor to ceiling shelves holding the artist’s amassed collection of found materials in his studio. This section explores the power of objects to relate histories and experiences of political violence and introduces the artistic history and political potential of Hafez’s assemblage practice.


Mohamad in the Media: The Artist in/of the "Global Contemporary"

This selection highlights recurring themes in US media’s accounts of Hafez and his work.  Ruin and devastation characterize the state of Syria and by extension, Hafez's work. Such an uncritical conflation between the imagined Syria of US media and the artist's own reimaginings of home, diaspora, and displacement paints an incomplete picture of the complexities of Hafez's practice. While Kirsten Scheid’s article “On Arabs and the Art Awakening: Warnings from a Narcoleptic Population” does not explicitly address Hafez’s work, it provides an important critical anchor. How does the unquestioned relationship between “art” and revolutionary “awakening,” Scheid asks, come to code a kind of humanitarian intervention?

Syrian Diasporas
Critical Crisis
Visual Citations
Out of Rubble
Mohamad in the Media
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