'Unpacked: Refugee Baggage' | Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont | Shows | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


'Unpacked: Refugee Baggage'

When: Feb. 8-May 6 2022

The Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington is hosting an exhibition of tiny houses unlike any you’ve seen before. They are miniatures, but not the adorable stuff of little girls’ dreams. “UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage” features meticulous sculptural recreations of rooms in homes and other cityscape buildings that have been ravaged by warfare. The architectural façades are tucked into actual suitcases that hang open from the gallery walls. To further underscore the theme, more suitcases are clustered in the middle of the room, as if waiting to go … somewhere. Syrian-born architect and sculptor Mohamad Hafez lives in New Haven, Conn., and is now an American citizen. But two decades ago, when he was a college student in the U.S., he began to construct the scale models to assuage his homesickness, he explains in a video on the Fleming website. Later, when family members had to flee the Syrian civil war, he shifted his artistic mission to reflect the stories of refugees — and those who didn’t manage to escape. In “Amjad,” named for a young man in Damascus, a rusty Peugeot 504 represents the car in which the secret service took him away. For “Fereshteh,” Hafez assembled a room in the basement school that she operated in secret in Tehran. The day she was cleared to immigrate to America, Fereshteh states joyfully in a recording on the website, was the day she was born. She is also in New Haven, now studying to become a nurse. Iraqi-born writer and speaker Amed Badr conducted the interviews in collaboration with Hafez; at the Fleming, viewers can listen to them through headphones accompanying the artworks. Hafez explains in his video that he wants to humanize refugees by telling their stories, and to build bridges in a divided country. “The human experience is very similar, very familiar,” he says, regardless of country, skin color, language or religion. In addition, he wants to share with younger generations something of the architectural and cultural heritage of the countries their families left behind. “Art speaks louder than any person — we should tell these stories,” Hafez concludes. “You got to build hope. We’re not people of despair.”