Born in El Salvador to a Salvadoran-Palestinian-Christian father and a French-Polish-Jewish mother, Muriel Hasbun moved to the United States in the 1980s at the height of the civil war in El Salvador. In Washington D.C. she established her practice not only as photographer but as an educator and an active promoter of Salvadorian art. She has explored the complexities of identity and the legacy of her family history in an extraordinary body of work that sees through the lens of photography with an intergenerational, transnational, and transcultural perspective. She has exhibited extensively in the United States and internationally and she has been the recipient of numerous distinctions throughout her career.
Muriel and I haven’t personally met yet. However, I’m honored and deeply grateful to have established a virtual relationship that has not only inspired this interview but that continues to inform and shape my ideas about homeland, displacement, migration, and memory. Our email exchange started in early 2020 while I was visiting el laberinto projects with curator Daniela Lieja Quintanar in San Salvador. Almost a year later, Muriel and I connected again with the idea of starting this conversation and at the time she kindly offered a virtual tour of her exhibition RECORD: Cultural Pulses at RoFa Projects. After many email exchanges we have finally completed the first of hopefully many more conversations and collaborative projects. In this interview Muriel shares with our readers more about her life in and out her country of origin, the project that pays homage to the life and work of her mother, Janine Janowski, and her recent and upcoming projects.
Claudia Pretelin: Growing up in El Salvador, what are some of the memories that you still hold dear from your homeland or, as you call it, your terruño?
Muriel Hasbun: Going to the beach every Sunday with my family during my childhood was an incredible gift. As an adolescent, I would spend hours sitting on the rocky formations, looking at the ocean and wondering about life and humanity. Once I migrated to the United States, the black sand of that beach became a metaphor for my home, my “terruño.” As an artist, this “terruño” became the conceptual arena where the forces of creation would play out. The memory of that special place became “the imminence of a revelation that doesn’t produce itself” –Jorge Luis Borges’ “aesthetic fact.” Like Borges, I always felt that making work was about embracing the questions, mysteries and unsolvable paradoxes of being human, what I would later call “the irreconcilable.” Eventually I realized that this “terruño,” while it contained all the complexities and vulnerabilities of identity, also held unbound potential for becoming and for connection. And that I might be able to answer some of these questions by walking this path of possibilities.
CP: I read in a different interview that you learned photography through your father who was an amateur photographer. Do you have any recollections of your first experimentations with the camera? What were some of the themes that interested you as a young photographer?
MH: My father, Antonio Hasbun Z., gave me my first camera at age 15 or so. Being very shy, at the beginning I made photographs of my friends as a way to connect with them. I was part of the photography and yearbook clubs, which provided a community while we would document our activities in and out of school. I carried my camera with me every day and I learned how to use it well. I was especially good at capturing candid moments and portraits. My father was mostly a documentarian influenced by the likes of W. Eugene Smith and Cornell Capa, but he also loved Man Ray and experimented in the darkroom with solarization and making high contrast negatives. Even though my beginnings were definitely in the documentary tradition too, like making photos of children in refugee camps during the Salvadoran civil war, once I embraced becoming a photographer and continued to live away from home, in the diaspora, I became more interested in the transformation of reality so as to allude to its perception rather than to its description as the camera supposedly captured it. Together with my sense of dislocation, I was heavily influenced by literature, specifically Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, T.S. Eliot and the French Surrealist poets. In tandem, I was drawn by the experimental photography of the Bauhaus and Surrealists, and studied with Ray K. Metzker. So, experimentation with the camera or in the darkroom became part of my exploration to try to create a synaesthetic, and enduring subjective experience through photography.
CP: Photography has allowed you to piece together fragments of your own history, creating a dialogue between your own personal story and a more collective history, as you have said in previous interviews. There are so many layers to memory that you highlight through your artistic and academic work. In your experience, what are some of the challenges of unfolding memories to revive or revisit past events?
MH: Memory is elusive. It changes with time and it’s different for each person who experienced a particular event. Nonetheless, its power is unquestionable. We’re not able to construct our sense of self without our memories. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to maintain a sense of authenticity while trying to find a language that may be able to translate and arrest those complex and fleeting memories into something, a narrative of sorts, and that may also connect with others who either have or have not had the same experience as you. For me, it’s about accepting and placing myself in the in-between, in the nuanced space between past and present, between absence and presence, between here and there, between you and me. Again, it’s a space full of potential where we can reimagine and recompose what we’ve been dealt through the generations. Photography itself embodies the paradox of what Roland Barthes referred to as the “having been there,” in that with a photograph, we witness and hold both the presence of something or someone at the same time that the photograph documents their absence. So, what remains, after the fact, is incredibly poignant for me. It strips us to the bone, in a sort of equalizing vulnerability. If I can pierce through the surface and connect with others in this visceral way, then we may have some hope of real dialogue, of truly seeing each other as complex human beings.
CP: Two recurrent themes in your work are identity and migration. As an immigrant to the United States and as a daughter of immigrants to El Salvador, what tools have you found in your art process to understand your hybrid identity? Where is the land that you call home after years of migration history?
MH: One of the ways that I began to know and understand my history was to ask family members to share their family photos with me. The process was a non threatening way of starting a conversation which could at the very least give me factual, straight forward, biographical information about the family members pictured (such as birth and death dates, places of residence, names of spouses and children, etc.), to then be able to discuss more difficult events in their lives (such as migrations, separations, losses, etc.), or the nature and quality of their relationships. This process also made me aware of the importance of accepting different points of view and of being empathetic, since each of us has a particular story to tell. I also realized that after seeing my work, many people wanted to share their own stories, so I extended this same process to interactive multimedia installations where the public shares their family photos, documents and their own stories. In my projects, barquitos de papel/paper boats and Documented: The Community Blackboard, I invite the public to contribute their stories, to create an ever growing, collective archive.
The land that I call home is still somewhat anchored in the Salvadoran territory while also being a diasporic construct. Metaphorically speaking, it refers back to that black sand beach where I grew up. The fact that it is a beach and always in flux, made up of sand, with traces of organisms and individuals walking on it that come from many different places and geological times, fits with my conceptual conceit of home, or “terruño.” It holds a multiplicity of transnational and intergenerational experiences and vivencias.
CP: You have challenged reductive ideas and dehumanizing rhetoric of Central Americans specifically from El Salvador, many times associated with images of violence and criminalized bodies. In a thoughtful and poetic way your work also investigates the many different ways violence has been inflicted in the history of your country. For example, in “Todos los santos (Volcán de Izalco, amén) / All the Saints (Izalco Volcano, Amen), 1995-96” from the series Santos y Sombras, you address violent political events such as La Matanza of 1932 ordered by El Salvador’s dictator Hernandez Martinez. Can you talk about the process of creating images that counter historical erasure and defeat stereotypical visual tropes of Central Americans?
MH: Most probably because of my own background as the daughter of a Salvadoran/Palestinian Christian father and a Polish/French Jewish mother, I draw upon my own family’s history while being extremely careful to contextualize it within an inclusive and complex history. The “Izalco Volcano, amen” photograph shows the most iconic volcano of El Salvador spewing a Greek Orthodox prayer written by my great grandfather Constantino in his own Arabic calligraphy. I made this photograph to resist institutional prejudice and cultural erasure against Palestinians in El Salvador and to mark our presence in the Salvadoran landscape. In so doing though it’s impossible to obviate the painful history of La Matanza (the killing of 10,000-30,000 Indigenous people) in the environs of the Izalco volcano in January 1932, a genocide that forever changed El Salvador. As a member of another pariah population who was also persecuted by el General Martínez through its Registro Especial de Extranjeros (Special Registry of Foreigners), and additionally, as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I’m especially sensitive to not only the violence inflicted on any racialized and criminalized body but also to the silent prejudice that eats away in everyday encounters. I grew up trying to blend in, not saying a word, having fully absorbed the lesson that silence meant survival. Through my work, I’m no longer silent and I hope that the work encourages others to also use their own voice to speak to the breadth and multiplicity of our experiences and identities. These counter narratives should help defeat stereotypes and build allegiances across cultural, racial, ethnic, religious and gender divides, within and outside the Central American community.
CP: There is a strong connection to the archive in your work, not only as a resource but as a form of resistance and ways of solidarity. Can you talk about your collaborative work with Erina Duganne for the project Art for the Future: Building Transnational Activism Through the Archive? In your opinion, what is needed to build better alliances and transnational dialogue among archives in the US, Central, and Latin America?
MH: Archives are essential for the construction of memory. To bring personal and public archives to light, especially as the documentation of events and populations remains invisible or erased, is indeed a form of resistance and solidarity. My collaborative work with Erina Duganne came about after a series of conversations where we shared information about our respective research interests. Erina had begun working on an exhibition and book based on Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America, that art critic and activist Lucy Lippard had organized in the 1980s. I had just recovered and started archiving my mother’s Janine Janowski’s Galería el laberinto’s papers (1977-2001) and had begun efforts for greater visibility of Central American artists of the 1980s through my cultural initiative, laberinto projects. Both archives are complementary and contemporaneous. Additionally, I had tried to find information on Salvadoran-American or Salvadoran artists at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and had found a recording of interviews that Lucy Lippard had conducted in El Salvador in 1984 that was unfortunately labeled “unidentified Salvadoran artists.” I was both dismayed and excited at finding this recording. Upon listening, I wasn’t only able to identify the artists interviewed but gasped at hearing my own mother’s name and her gallery mentioned by the woman I had deduced Lippard was interviewing, artist and art doyenne, Julia Díaz, founder of Galería and Museo Forma.
Our conversations laid bare the need to repair the institutional erasure on the one hand as well as Artists Call’s missed opportunity to include more than a few token Central American artists in their 1980’s mission where “the sketches, the scores, the new monuments, the images” of Central American artists would effect change. Erina and I presented together at CAA’s 2019 national conference commemorating Lucy Lippard’s legacy and were selected to participate in “Archive Transformed,” a scholar and artist residency at Chautauqua/CU Boulder, where we spent five intense days together exchanging ideas and information about our respective archives and points of view. Erina invited me to be part of the January 2022 exhibition Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities, and commissioned me to do a piece for the book that will accompany the exhibition. Currently, we’re in the process of organizing Artists Call NOW to open in San Salvador’s Centro Cultural de España, concurrent with the Tufts exhibition so as to redress the general omission of Central American and Central American –American artists in the original Artists Call, and generally, in the art historical canon.
To answer your question, what is needed first is greater awareness and knowledge. Salvadorans are the third largest Latinx population in the United States. Latinx artists are barely represented in U.S. museums, and Central Americans are often omitted from Latin American and Latinx art historical narratives. We need an openness to the diversity of who we are, an acceptance that we are an essential part of this country, that we are artists and producers of culture, and that our art is necessary in telling a more inclusive and accurate history of the United States.
CP: After your mother’s death in 2012, you have dedicated your own art and teaching practice to disseminate the important role that el laberinto, – an art gallery and cultural center known as a haven for artists, writers and intellectuals –, played during the war years in El Salvador. Can you talk about the roles of laberinto projects, its mission, and how artists, academics, researchers, and other organizations can get involved with this initiative?
MH: laberinto projects is an extension of my art and teaching practice. It rescues and activates the Galería el laberinto’s archive, which to me, is another “family” archive at the intersection of private and public realms. Its aim is to generate new knowledge, dialogue, community and empathy across borders through art. The project stemmed out of my 2006 Fulbright Scholar project “Terruño: Detrás del telón/Backdrop: The Search for Home,” which the year after became a project-based, collaborative course on El Salvador that I began teaching at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in 2007. When my mother passed away, I decided to pay homage to her legacy as a cultural promoter and as the founder of Galería el laberinto. Upon her death, her gallery’s archive was basically left scattered and mixed in with everything else in various boxes and armoires throughout her house, and it took the help of a group of volunteer students, colleagues and family members –to whom I am deeply indebted– to cull through it over the course of various trips to El Salvador and to retrieve it and bring it to my home in the United States. I’m still in the process of digitizing and organizing it!
In a parallel track, and as part of Laberinto’s mission of shedding light on the arts of Central America, I began teaching workshops and a professional development study away course for U.S. educators in schools and museums. EDUCA gives teachers of all disciplines culturally-responsive resources and knowledge to shape the teaching environment in their home institutions in the United States, with actual examples of art by Central American artists represented in the Laberinto archive.
The course also teaches visual literacy skills, helping teachers to integrate art into their curricula. With 2.3 million Salvadorans in the United States, there are so many children in our public school systems that feel culturally excluded, vilified or erased. This program allows children and youth to see themselves proudly through their own art and culture, and the artworks also provide a way for teachers to more effectively and equitably connect with their students. In the end, the artworks are a witness to a particular time and place when most of us migrated to the United States. They speak our story.
There is a ton of work to be done surrounding laberinto projects and we need all the help and resources we can get! If you’re an educator, an artist, a scholar, a curator, a student, writer, first or second generation Salvi, or a philanthropist who values education and art as vehicles for social change, please contact me! You can bring your group to El Salvador, learn about Central American art and artists, spend time researching and writing at a magnificent place overlooking the caldera lake Coatepeque, and in the process, also support an amazing project resisting erasure, toxic representations and cultural illiteracy of Salvadorans and Central Americans.
CP: Your most recent body of work, Pulse: New Cultural Registers, has many layers. One that I’m particularly interested in is the rescue and honoring of works by other Salvadoran artists in this series. Could you talk about the process of creating and incorporating the work of artists like Julio Sequeira, Rosa Mena Valenzuela, and others in your own work?
MH: Like I said before, the art of the 1980s and 90s holds the stories of that fraught time and place, during the civil war and its aftermath in El Salvador. With Pulse, I map my “terruño” or diasporic homeland by embedding details of artworks made by artists who worked with Janine at Galería el laberinto, onto the seismic register of El Salvador. I also incorporate images from my own photographic negatives of the time, so as to include myself, together with them, in this act of witnessing. My inclusion of their work is also an act of solidarity and community building, like many of the workshop and exhibition projects of Laberinto Projects that I’ve been working on since my mother’s passing. My aim is to create a transnational community of artists, scholars and educators through the knowledge of Central American art, both historical and contemporary. It’s only natural for me to want to include my fellow artistic peers and mentors from the region, whom I admire greatly, such as Julio Sequeira, Carlos Cañas, Moisés Barrios, and Rosa Mena Valenzuela, to name a few. And finally, constructing these pictures is also an act of resistance. It reframes our experience into a new registry for a more caring, hopeful and restorative future.
CP: In January of 2021 it was announced that your work is now part of the Whitney Museum Collection. Could you talk about what this achievement means to you and to the representation of Salvadoran artists in the United States?
MH: To have my work represented in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art is an incredible honor. I thank all those angels who have supported me throughout my career and continue to do so and have made this possible. I realize that as a woman, and as a Salvadoran American artist, I’m certainly the exception, and that is truly mind blowing. But there are many very talented artists of Central American descent. I hope that the acquisition of art into institutional collections by underrepresented Latinx artists, in all of our diversity, is the beginning of a trend!
CP: Other than photography, what’s your favorite instrument of memory?
MH: I’m particularly attached to significant places and the objects, such as the black volcanic sand on that childhood beach where I grew up, or my mother’s adobe house overlooking the volcanic Coatepeque lake. But certain objects such as textiles or articles of clothing are especially poignant documents and effective detonators of memory. Like photography, they can hold a direct imprint to the body of a loved one. And they may hold a trace of their presence, down to their DNA. They can be visually rich, allowing light to diffuse itself through their weave, creating transparencies and fluid overlays. Or they may reflect light back, becoming a mirror of sorts, pointing our attention inwardly or in a different direction. We respond to their texture with a certain longing and they could have the lingering smell of Chanel No 5.
Thank you, Muriel!
Muriel Hasbun’s expertise as an artist and as an educator focuses on cultural identity, migration and memory. Her awards and distinctions include: FY21 AHCMC Artist Grant, Trawick and Sondheim Finalist; CENTER Santa Fe’s Producer’s and Curator’s Choice, Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, Howard Chapnick Grant; Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Awards in Photography and Media; U.S. Department of State/AAM Museums Connect grant; Artist in Residences at Chataqua/CU Boulder, Centro Cultural de España, El Salvador, and Escuela de Bellas Artes, Mexico; the Corcoran’s Outstanding Creative Research Faculty Award, and a Fulbright Scholar fellowship. Hasbun’s work has been internationally exhibited and is in private and public collections: American University Museum, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Centro de la Imagen, Civilian Art Projects, Corcoran Gallery of Art, FotoFest, Lehigh University, Light Work, Maier Museum of Art, Mexican Cultural Institute, Museo del Barrio, Museum of Photographic Art, Rencontres de la Photographie, Smithsonian American Art Museum, University of Texas-Austin, Whitney Museum, 50th Venice Biennale. Building upon her career as a socially engaged artist and a photography professor, Hasbun is currently the founder and director of laberinto projects, a transnational, cultural memory initiative fostering contemporary art practices, social inclusion and dialogue in El Salvador and its U.S. diaspora. She is Professor Emerita at George Washington University and the 2021 Estelle Lebowitz Endowed Visiting Artist at Rutgers University. Her work is represented by RoFa Projects.
If you are interested in learning more about Muriel Hasbun’s work, check out her website murielhasbun.com and follow her on Instagram @murielfoto
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