What makes Hafez unique is his insight. In his late thirties, he is a living harmony of two eras.
Hafez is old enough to remember the Golden Age of the Kingdom, a time when the oil boom was in full force, yet young enough to idealize it. He recalls Saudi Arabia when it had not yet been weighed down with a Western inferiority complex — one that eventually coerced it into a state of stagnation (pun intended) through its knee-jerk defenses to protect its culture and traditions. Hafez reminisces, with unabashed nostalgia, a time when men like his father — the late Hisham Ali Hafez, were working to make the country become something great.
His eyes sparkle at the talk of his childhood, but quickly dim when the conversation turns to the reality of the country’s present condition. That is when you witness the other half of Hafez: the ardent voice of a Saudi man ill at ease with much around him. Much like Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984, Hafez is too self-aware for his own good, yet he is also a product of the system and therefore, irrevocably trapped. It is that complexity that makes Hafez, “the artist.” His ability to juxtapose the promise of the past with the present reality provides him an exceptional source of inspiration, pushing his artwork into an altogether different realm.
“I’d like to think of myself as a conceptual artist,” says Hafez. “I may have conjured up the concept, but I had a graphic designer do the actual stencils.” She is Maryam Beydoun, he quickly adds, not shy to give credit where it is deserved. “I told her I wanted it to resemble street art and she was able to produce exactly what I wanted," he enthuses, referring to his latest “project” as he calls it.
This “project”, entitled A Short Story took form as a first solo exhibition on April 18th, at one of the Kingdom’s oldest galleries, Atelier Jeddah. Ten pieces were concocted using the traditional Saudi shamagh as a canvas. Hafez created a narrative using stencils and spray paint, only to result in a story like none other seen in Saudi before.
Saudi Arabia has recently been infested with contemporary artists, and dominated by the same eight names over and over again. Many of them are veterans, having worked for years perfecting their perspective, while slowly progressing forward in the hope of ultimately shining light on some of the most sensitive issues that are often deliberately avoided.
Yet Hafez just jumped right in, feet first, leaving behind the instinct to censor, to be cautious, to dilute his commentary.
Ironically, Hafez’s works seem to act as atonement for merely possessing such frustrations and second thoughts of whether he should display his convictions for all to see. The same feelings that told him to be mindful were the same emotions that pushed him past his tipping point and generated the courage to show something in Saudi, about Saudi, that would really get people talking. And more importantly, get people thinking.
His series can be looked at and followed in three different ways, but all with the same outcome — chaos, as depicted in his work with the pop culture icon of the mask from the 2006 cult film, V for Vendetta. “It is the inevitable outcome of our present predicament,” he says with a frankness that is almost eerie. Hafez’s commentary on the country’s current situation is reminiscent of well-known artist Abdulnasser Gharem in so far as both view the situation from within the status quo, yet are also some of its biggest critics.
“Anything could serve as an ideal medium to convey a meaningful message, whether it be social or political values. The artist, who takes the role of a tradition-breaker or trendsetter, believes in his or her need to interact with the public,” explained prominent Egyptian art critic and artist, Ezzedine Najeeb, who wrote the introduction to Hafez’s exhibition. “It is in this context that the works of Qaswra Hafez has to be viewed and appreciated. They present a vision that is ideological, but which is inspired by a heritage that draws on all the richness of the past, such as the Saudi head covering, the shamagh, which is designed and painted with a sophisticated aesthetic touch of modern times.” Najeeb goes on to say that the medium’s relevance is further intensified with its tiny squares, a symbol of national unity and cultural continuity from immemorial times. “Every tiny square or drawing appearing on it, has the fascination of a partly forgotten memory, or the romantic charm of an exotic idea. It also, interestingly, evokes in the viewer a sense of criticism,” he added.
There isn’t a more fitting piece than Hafez’s first work,“Gas Mask,” to describe the convictions of the artist--the individual suffocating in society, who is desperately trying to avoid further contamination from the poisonous toxins of his surroundings. Hafez and his works are a flashflood of harsh commentary in the barren desert of society’s sedated conformity. Hafez does not believe in hiding the imperfections of our human nature behind resolute faces of religion, government, and culture; rather, he chooses to expose these concepts for their true nature as masks of convenience.
“Everyone need not agree with the symbolic ideas incorporated into these squares or drawings on Qaswra's works,” revealed Najeeb. “Viewers' responses to them could be mixed and diametrically opposed. While some are fascinated, there are others who are baffled or even shocked. But this is what precisely the artist is looking for. He seeks to evoke a response turning the initial rejection to a positive participation with the artist and finally the crystallization of yet new ideas.” While Najeeb believes that Hafez’s works show a “love for classicism and stress on the Saudi identity,” he admits it could be interpreted in numerous ways, such as an insistence on traditionalism and a refusal to move forward, an attempt to mask what is going on in the head of a wearer or even a dream for freedom from the cage of tradition. “A viewer is free to form his own meaning but any interpretation is a hint to the countless ways one can understand Qaswra's works,” he added. “But the hallmark of his works, which no one would mistake to identify, is that everyone belongs to the same tree of the same roots, and the difference is only in the outward branches. Qaswra's works could be the harbinger of a new genre in the contemporary Saudi art.”
While Hafez’s series could quite possibly indicate a dawning of a bolder age of contemporary Saudi art, one can easily decipher a more personal motivation behind this endeavor — and surprisingly, it couldn’t be more detached from art. Much more than just a nod to his father, one half of the brother-duo who established these very green pages you are currently reading, the exhibition was made with the same idealistic hope that his father and uncle harnessed in creating the Kingdom’s “Green Truth.” A Winston Smith of our ages, this is definitely only the beginning for Qaswra Hafez. And hopefully, only the beginning of future, similar discussions.