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Muriel Hasbun’s ethnic heritage is multifarious almost to the point of absurdity. She grew up in El Salvador, the daughter of a Palestinian Christian father and a Jewish mother whose socialist-leaning parents had fled Poland to seek refuge from the Nazis in France. In recent years, Hasbun managed to uncover a devoutly Greek Orthodox great-grandfather, and Ester, a cousin of her maternal grandfather who now lives in Israel.
Hasbun’s tangled ancestry fuels her art. This month, she begins the first of two shows at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. The first, “Protegida: Auvergne—Toi et Moi,” consists of photographs made partly of letters exchanged between her grandmother, who spent World War II hiding in central France, and her father, who stayed in Paris. The second, “Santos y Sombras” (Saints and Shadows), is a collection of more personal reflections on Hasbun’s Christian and Jewish heritage.
While Hasbun was a child, her mother spoke little about her Jewish heritage, only hinting at what had happened back in Europe. Hasbun attributes her mother’s reticence to the prevailing Catholicism in El Salvador, her mother’s relatively secular upbringing, and scars of the Holocaust. The shadows began to lift only in the early ’90s, when friends suggested that Hasbun attend the first gathering of hidden children of World War II. “It was a complete revelation to me about my background, how psychologically it had all come together,” she says. “I realized, what better way for my mother to hide than to go to El Salvador, marry a Palestinian Christian, and raise her children Catholic? She wanted to continue to protect us, and that was the easiest and best way to do it.”
That notion of protection re-emerges in “Protegida” (Spanish for “protected” or “watched over”). Her aim was to evoke her grandmother’s period of hiding in France by superimposing fragments of her grandparents’ letters along with images that Hasbun shot on location in Le Mont Dore, the French town where her family hid. Hasbun then printed the images on photographically treated samples of linens that had belonged to her grandmother.
Hasbun’s second show consists of 40 images that she made sporadically during the ’90s. The “Santos” portion of “Santos & Sombras” addresses her Catholic background; the “Shadows” investigates Hasbun’s new-found Jewish roots, especially images of her long-lost relative Ester, whom Hasbun met in 1993.
Hasbun’s parents, she says, have welcomed her artistic forays—mostly: “They’re very proud of what I’ve done, and I think I’ve helped them reconnect with their past, but at the same time, it’s been a very difficult thing for me to uncover. Those were very painful memories and experiences.”—Louis Jacobson
“Protegida: Auvergne—Toi et Moi” is on view to Aug. 25. “Santos y Sombras” will be on view Sept. 1 through 30. Both are at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW.