U of C Art Exhibit Features Mohamad Hafez, Ann Hamilton | WBEZ
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New Oriental Institute Art Exhibits Range From Giant Images Overhead To Scenes In A Suitcase

The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute has nearly 350,000 artifacts from humanity’s earliest civilizations. And starting Saturday, two new art exhibits will showcase some of those items in a new way.

Architect and artist Mohamad Hafez has two works about Syria on display at the museum. Across the University of Chicago campus, visual artist Ann Hamilton’s latest work will be on display at The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library.

WBEZ talked with both artists about the works.

Mohamad Hafez: “We get stuck in our memories”

There isn’t a perfect Arabic word for how Hafez feels about his native Syria, but he said the Welsh word “hiraeth” comes close.It means “severe homesickness to a place or a homeland that is no longer existent or might have never existed,” he said. So Hafez adopted the word as the title of one of the works on display as part of the Oriental Institute museum’s centennial celebration.

Hiraeth is a 5-foot tall sculpture made of plastic, metal, wood and found objects -- like an old earring -- designed to resemble how he remembers Damascus. Or how he wants to remember it.

“When we leave home, we get stuck in our memories,” Hafez said. “We’re subconsciously always expecting home to be the way it is [just as] we left it.”

Michael Tropea/Courtesy of Oriental Institute
Mohamad Hafez's Hiraeth.

Hafez said he moved to the U.S. 18 years ago as an architecture student with a single-entry visa. He said he got “stuck” here for almost a decade because of a travel ban put in place by former President George W. Bush’s administration.

He couldn’t attend family celebrations, which he said only exacerbated his homesickness. So he decided to “recreate home” through meticulous scenes that expressed his connection to Syria.

His other work on display, Collateral Damage, features the same, small-scale recreations of Syria, and places that inside an old, opened suitcase. Hafez said the work represents the Syrian refugee crisis and a universal emotional and physical baggage.

“You don’t have to be Syrian, or Middle Eastern, or gone through the refugee crisis to really understand that we all can live out of our suitcase with our memories that we schlep around,” Hafez said.

Hafez works are on display at The Oriental Institute Museum through next year.

Ann Hamilton: “You can feel more when there’s less”

Tom Rossiter/Courtesy of Oriental Institute
Hamilton's aeon features scanned images of ancient figures from the Oriental Institute.

In Hamilton’s latest work, aeon, the artist scanned created translucent images from artifacts excavated from a temple thousands of years ago and affixed them to the ceiling of the Mansueto Library.

But first, Hamilton said, she had to get to know the ancient materials.

“My knowledge of this material is better than it was, but I’m still very much a generalist,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton used flatbed and hand-held scanners over the mummy-like figures to create the images. That analog, rather than digital, process was intentional.

“We live in a world where like HD is really glorified… ‘you can see more and there’s more pixels,’” she said. “I think you can feel more when there’s less.”

Hamilton said the glass windows at the Mansueto Library allow the weather to interact with the art, creating something like a video installation.

“We looked at other library spaces and common spaces,” Hamilton said. “[But] it’s this way that you’re underground there, and the way [the images] arch over your head.”

aeon is on display at The Mansueto Library until Oct. 31.

Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.

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