Muriel Hasbun of Silver Spring has the distinction of being the sole Montgomery County-based finalist for the 2019 Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards.
The Corcoran School of the Arts & Design professor emerita works in photography and video as well as interactive installations. She submitted three recent projects that represent “my art practice, and embody my investigation of identity, cultural memory and migration through an intersubjective, transcultural and transnational lens” to the 16th annual regional visual arts competition. Trawick Prize jurors selected specific pieces from them for the exhibition, she said.
Hasbun, who grew up in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, credits both her “parents and their writer and artist friends” as major influences on her cultural mindset. Her father Antonio Hasbun, a dentist and an “accomplished amateur photographer,” taught her about photography. “From a young age, I was curious and used to help him wash the photographs after he printed them in the darkroom,” she said.
When Hasbun was 16, her father gave her one of his cameras. “Then, as a shy teenager, I became more interested in photography, and I joined my high school photography and yearbook clubs, photographing my friends and our daily life in school as a way to feel more connected,” she recalled.
Janine Janowksi, her mother, founded Galería el laberinto, “the only art gallery that would support young and innovative artists from all political and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Hasbun said. “At a time  when there was no art museum in El Salvador, the gallery became a cultural oasis and gathering place for artists, academics, writers, intellectuals and anyone who loved art and culture. Through my mother and the gallery, I met many inspiring artists, many who became my friends.”
Considering becoming a medical professional like her father, yet “attracted to the humanities and the arts,” Hasbun attended Georgetown University, where she could major in literature and still be pre-med. Yet after college, while working in her mother’s gallery, she “realized that all I was doing was taking pictures. I photographed in the streets, refugee camps and made many portraits of the artists who worked in the gallery.”
That recognition prompted her to enroll in a master of fine arts in photography program at George Washington University, where her mentor Ray Metzker “understood that I was interested in photography as a way to allude to emotions, sensations and a psychological world not so easily accessible.”
From “barquitos from the archive (…who do you miss the most?),” archival pigment print on Epson Transparency Film and lightbox, 2019.
Courtesy of the artist
Literature, especially the works of Marcel Proust and Jorge Luis Borges, inspired her, too, Hasbun said, and thus, “photography became a powerful language for me — to try to describe a world underneath the surface of things, while paying attention, looking and recording the sensuality and presence of worlds around and within us.
“Photography would soon become not only a vehicle to express who I was, but a refuge against silence and forgetting, where I could construct my own sense of identity, memory and place in the world.”
What Hasbun finds compelling about photography is its “ability to capture the light that bounced off a person that is no longer there as the most poignant metaphor for our plight and existence. Everything changes, loss and death are part of the life that we hold so dear,” she explained. “Yet, we mark our presence, we document, we connect, we build a life and our histories with both the riches and the secrets that we receive, carry and pass on.”
In addition to her parents, Hasbun’s extended family of immigrants to El Salvador, many of whose “stories were silenced because of prejudice, persecution or genocide,” has influenced her work. Thus, family photographs have been “so important in my own journey,” she said. “The photographs that family members still had from our family’s many diasporas — in El Salvador, France, Israel, Palestine, Honduras, Canada and Australia — were both passports and portals to people and worlds that are now gone and that I did not know about growing up.”
Hasbun’s heritage not only influences her art, but also led her to found the nonprofit Laberinto Projects “to foster contemporary art practices, social inclusion and dialogue in El Salvador and its U.S. diaspora, through exhibitions, art education, artist residencies and community engagement,” she said. “[It] builds on my work and expertise as an artist and professor, and on my mother’s legacy as a cultural promoter and gallerist in El Salvador during the civil war years.”
She also leads EDUCA, a professional development immersion program that “takes U.S. educators of all disciplines to El Salvador to learn about the art and culture of Central America, so as to foster visual literacy, the use of art from Central America in the classroom and a more culturally responsive and equitable learning environment in our schools and museums.”
The work of the eight Trawick Prize finalists is on display through Sept. 28 at Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite E, Bethesda. Hours are from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The public opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept.13. Visit www.bethesda.org or call 301-215-6660.