Corcoran Gallery of Art
Elusive, overlapping, faint one moment and sharp the next, Muriel Hasbun’s photographs dealing with family, immigration, and exile come close to capturing the quality of memory. In these works she brought her ancestors to life through letters, postcards, artifacts, identity documents and testimonies, combining them in images of haunting power.
Hasbun has had a lot of material with which to work. Her mother was a French-born Jew who fled Vichy France, and her father was the son of Palestinian Christian immigrants to El Salvador, where the artist was born and raised. Hasbun left that country at the height of the civil war in the 1980s and now lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Hasbun uses layers of negatives to create ashy, narrative images that evoke the layers of her identity. Often she incorporates documents, or prints the images on personally significant materials. For her “Protegida/Watched Over: Auvergne-Toi et Moi/You and Me” series (1995-98), she printed a roomful of photos on sheets of white linen that belonged to her maternal grandmother.
Some of the strongest works here suggested how Hasbun’s parents might have experienced their new country. One showed a fuming El Salvadoran volcano rising above a mat of tropical vegetation, with a prayer etched in Arabic script across the billowing smoke. Another depicted a scene of palms and faint mountains, over which Hasbun had superimposed a thumbprint.
Several wooden triptych constructions resembling altarpieces held photographs where icons depicting saints would normally reside. In several sculptures, she incorporated,to great effect, thorns from a bush she picked up in the El Salvadoran countryside. One of the altarpieces had a drawer full of these large, nasty-looking thorns, while is a photograph they were superimposed on an outstretched hand like stigmata. Hasbun’s magically subtle ability to extract beauty and humanity out of violence and alienation was particularly evident here.