A large and emotionally charged solo retrospective of photographic work by Muriel Hasbun is currently on view at RoFa Projects in Potomac, MD. The exhibit fills a number of dedicated gallery spaces of this house venue, including an outside location: a miniature playhouse in the back yard that owner, gallery director and curator of the exhibit, Gabriela Rosso, has named La Morada.
The RoFa exhibition includes photographs from various series from over the past three decades, including one, Santos y Sombras/Saints and Shadows, that I first saw and reviewed in her late mother’s gallery, El Laberinto, in San Salvador in 1994. Seeing these haunting pictures in this new space provoked an unexpectedly strong emotional response. I was close to Hasbun’s mother, Janine Janowski, and knew almost all of the artists she represented at the time, some of whom have since passed away. Following the peace accords of January 1992 that ended the long civil war, the early to mid-90s was an exciting and optimistic time in El Salvador, a period that saw a flourishing of all the arts especially in the capital, San Salvador. For many reasons, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the return of the violent gangs (the maras), that time is gone, as is the gallery and its director. The RoFa exhibition combines works that reflect Hasbun’s own efforts to secure and record memories of her mixed family heritage, her life in El Salvador and new work that pays homage to the artists of El Laberinto.
My tour of the exhibit began in La Morada, from the outside a tiny house painted in pretty colors that was built for a child by the previous owner of the property. Inside, the experience was quite different. Janine was a French Jew whose family originated in Poland. With the rise of the Nazis and their invasion of France, all Jews were in danger. At the age of two, Janine, her mother, her grandmother Gouta and great-aunt Hélène were hidden from them in a small town, Le Mont-Dore in Auvergne, a mountainous and volcanic region in southcentral France. Surviving the war, she eventually immigrated to El Salvador, a mountainous and volcanic region of Central America whose rocky soil is remarkably similar to that in Auvergne. Hasbun’s multimedia installation is titled Protegida: Auvergne: Toi et Moi (Protected: Auvergne: You and Me). Inside the small interior of the house, she has hung clotheslines with photographs printed on frayed remnants of her grandmother’s linens that Janine had brought with her to El Salvador. These tell the story of the family’s survival and constitute a dialogue with the present. The sound element completes this latter. It is a series of recordings of Janine and Muriel on their visit to Le Mont-Dore in 1993, with more recent additions of the artist singing French children’s songs.
One, a portrait of Janine at the age of 4 or 5 had the smile that she had many years later. There are fragments of scribbled post cards and letters from the period. Included is a work based on a photo from Poland of her great uncle Wigdor, c. 1938, in his Polish Army uniform, as well as another where the endearment Tonton (dear uncle) is written in childish letters. Managing to escape detection during the war, at its end Wigdor returned to his family home in Chmielnik, Poland, where he was killed by the villagers.
In one corner Hasbun has strewn the red volcanic rocks found in Auvergne and in El Salvador. Everything else in the space is black and white and grey, all understated, and with the door closed, creating a feeling of being protected, but also trapped.
Another portion of the exhibit consists of three triptychs from the series Protegida: Auvergne-Hélène, dating from 1996–2003. Each triptych is comprised of three framed images arranged altar-like in a wooden casement that sits on a low bench. These are also based on images of members of Hasbun’s maternal family during the war, and on the themes of persecution and discrimination in general. These latter are important ones for Hasbun. Not only her mother, but also her father, a Palestinian/Salvadoran Christian, came from families that had immigrated to escape persecution , and it is a fact that the two million Salvadorans now living in the United States are also victimized by their immigrant status. Among Hasbun’s intentions with her most recent work, as demonstrated in the exhibit, is to “celebrate us, to get to know us [i.e. Salvadorans], to empathize with us through the recognition of our art, culture and personal stories.”
To that end are the works that are in another section of the show from the series Pulse: New Cultural Registers/Pulso: nuevos registros culturales. On a recent trip to San Salvador, Hasbun went to research the archives of the seismic registers. As with many things, the “archive” consisted of piles of the paper registers of seismic activity dating from the early 1980’s and beyond. As she went through them, she would place them up against a window for the light, but the paper was so thin that sometimes things seen through the window would appear in the photos she took of them. To create the images in the exhibit, Hasbun combined the photos of the registers with images of works by, as mentioned above, Salvadoran artists connected to El Laberinto, as well as some texts of Janine’s that she has archived.
These works are also impactful as they refer simultaneously to the tragic history of earthquakes in El Salvador that in many cases have resulted in extreme destruction in addition to thousands of deaths, and to an art history that managed and continues to survive. Earthquakes are a factor of life in El Salvador and other countries in Central America. A serious one (5.7M) in 1986, which destroyed the US Embassy in San Salvador, along with hundreds of other buildings and homes was followed by a devastating one (7.7M) in January 2001, also caused a major landslide that killed and injured thousands. So much of what was built up during the 1990’s was destroyed, with particular effect on the arts. The blending of the seismic registers with works of Salvadoran artists represents this reality. Mostly printed on anodized aluminum plates, they have a three-dimensional quality that makes them all the more effective.
Among the images that stood out to me were Pulse: Seismic Register 2020.02.28.048 (Niño/17-III-83). Combining one of Hasbun’s own earlier photos of a child laying on the beach with the data of the 1983 register gives it a chilling effect. When I saw it, I first thought it was a child injured or made homeless by an earthquake.
Another work honors a famed pioneer of Expressionism in El Salvador, Rosa Mena Valenzuela (1913-2004), as well as Janine herself by combining the lines of the register with a negative of an excerpt from her typed and hand corrected text countering allegations of mere exoticism in Valenzuela’s work.
Painter Luis Lazo Chapparo is recalled with a group of works based on his heart image (Corazón), the most striking of which shows it in bright red, glowing under the tinted areas of lines and numbers of the register, expressing both the idea of a pulsing heart and the pulsing of the earth.
A large and memorable print combines the register and notes referring to the 10 October 1986 earthquake with imagery referring to the work of Julio Sequiera. The gyrations of the chart on the right overlay an explosion that points to yet another danger in the country: active volcanoes. The image reminded Hasbun of a 1995 photo she took of the volcano of Izalco (near San Salvador) which, instead of lava, appears to erupt the words of her grandfather’s Greek Orthodox prayer in Arabic calligraphy.
Looking at the exhibit as a whole, the themes of destruction and survival seem central, testament to the persistence of the human spirit. Rather than merely rehearsing suffering, the experiences it records are inspiring. It is very much worth the effort to drive out to RoFa Projects to see this exhibit in person. It is an experience you will not soon forget.
RECORD: Cultural Pulses. Muriel Hasbun/A Solo Exhibition, at RoFa Projects, 10008 Hemswell Lane, Potomac, MD, 20854, Tues.-Sat. 10-5, open by appointment through March 13, 2021. Call Gabriela Rosso, 202-779-7471 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
 The word is used to describe bruises in general. As a feminine noun it refers specifically to women who have suffered violence. A smaller space of this venue, generally specializing in Latin American artists, now also holds an exhibit expressing that theme with art by women from various Latin American countries.
 “El Arte de la Fotografía,” in El Diario de Hoy, 18 December 1994. The exhibit included the work of two other Salvadoran photographers. One photograph from the series was recently acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Hasbun’s work is part of numerous public and private collections.
 Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the Washington DC area. They constitute the third largest Latino population in the country.
 Artist’s statement to the exhibition.
 Hasbun has founded laberinto projects, an organization that seeks to promote the arts, arts education, legacy preservation, social inclusion, and dialogue in El Salvador, Central American, and its diaspora. Its Salvadoran base is on property previously owned outside of San Salvador by her mother.
 It was followed by a 6.6M quake the next month.