Five Questions with Photographer Muriel Hasbun
December 12, 2013
Eye Level, with the help of former intern Becky Harlan, had a chance to speak with photographer Muriel Hasbun about her artistic roots and her current process. Her work appears in the current exhibition, A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well as Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, which opened at the museum on October 25. Hasbun is the chair of Photography at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C.
Eye Level: What triggered your interest in art and photography and how has your approach to art changed since you first began working?
Muriel Hasbun: I owe my first arts education to my parents. My mother, Janine Janowski, owned an art gallery in El Salvador, and my father, Antonio Hasbun Z., was an accomplished amateur photographer. As a shy 16 year old, I began to take pictures of my friends with a 35mm camera that my father gave me. After my literature undergraduate studies, I returned to El Salvador and documented children displaced by the civil war. Once back in the U.S., I focused my energy on unraveling and constructing my own sense of identity. Santos y sombras/Saints and Shadows, of which there are two images in Our America, is the first iteration of that search. Other series, like Auvergne-Toi et Moi and Protegida/Watched Over continue to investigate the relationship between personal memory, post memory, and collective history. Through teaching, and since 2006, when I was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to El Salvador, my efforts have also involved creating sites of cultural exchange.
EL: You have said that you work through an "intergenerational, transnational, and transcultural, lens." Can you elaborate on that?
MH: Throughout my career, I have employed photography to investigate issues of identity, memory and inter-subjectivity. My own Palestinian/Salvadoran Christian and Polish/French Jewish family is multivalent, multilingual and multicultural. I’m the product of multiple exiles and diasporas, including my own. By necessity, I traverse boundaries, and I’m drawn toward creating a template for understanding.
Through my work, then, I explore a territory where negotiating allegiances to multiple cultures, religions, and languages is the norm, rather than the exception. I do this by stitching together fragments of the past into elusive narratives in the present, in a dialogue between personal and collective history.
EL: Your work is based out of your family's history, how do you hope that translates to the individual viewer?
MH: The initial investigation of my own family history was a strategy to reconcile the irreconcilable. I began gathering and closely scrutinizing family photographs and documents that had been previously dispersed and unexamined. Little by little, I realized the power of learning the stories and historical events surrounding the archive. This became a method of inquiry and part of my creative process. It also became a way of engaging my own family and the greater community in a dialogue about our individual and collective sense of identity.
I have always been interested in photography as a means of translating or evoking aspects of our subjective reality. The multiple layers in my photos, as well as sound, video and other installation elements help immerse the viewer further into the emotional aura of the work. Many of my projects like barquitos de papel/paper boats and Documented: The Community Blackboard have a relational or public intervention component too. In the video installation, barquitos de papel the public is asked to add paper boats inscribed with personal stories of migration, and Documented invites the public to contribute family photos and writing onto the exhibition walls. In my recent show at the Corcoran’s Gallery 31, I asked members of the public to write or draw their own stories of trauma occasioned by war onto one of my photos of X post facto. Through these different strategies of engagement, I’m assembling a collective archive that sheds light on the interconnections and shared experiences that exist between us, regardless of which nation’s passport we might happen to carry.
EL: Whose work are you most inspired by?
MH:The French Surrealist poets, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges and T.S. Eliot first provided a framework for my desire to employ photography as a poetic or narrative medium. Man Ray and Lotte Jacobi were a great influence, as was my mentor Ray Metzker, who encouraged me to play and strive for inventive experimentation. My colleagues and students at the Corcoran inspire me every day.
EL: What is your biggest challenge as an artist?
MH: The biggest challenge is balancing time and resources for creating one’s work.
Picture This: A Study for the Capitol
December 11, 2013
You currently can see Constantino Brumidi's Study for the Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol Building on the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, near the sculpture of George Washington Resigning his Commission by Ferdinand Pettrich. This was the final study that Brumidi completed before beginning work on the interior of the U.S. Capitol dome, and the painting reveals a great deal about the artist's process.
The museum purchased the painting at auction in 2012, ensuring that this important artwork will be available to the public in perpetuity. The painting had been in private hands since the 1920s. Having this painting on view also allows visitors to get a closer look at the imagery around George Washington, including six vignettes that celebrate American virtues and the promise of the country's future.
We recently interviewed senior curator Eleanor Harvey and chief conservator Tiarna Doherty about this work and have created a video that explores the symbolism in the painting as well as highlight discoveries made during conservation. Take a look at the video and be sure to stop by the painting next time you visit the museum.
Picture This: Last Chance to Visit the Renwick Gallery
December 5, 2013
The Renwick Gallery is about to undergo a major renovation. The last day the Renwick will be open to the public is Sunday, December 8. Be sure to stop by over the next few days to check out the two exhibitions that are still on view: A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets and Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby.
The renovation includes completely renewed infrastructure, enhanced historic features, and other upgrades that will make the National Historic Landmark building a 21st-century destination. We plan to reopen the building in 2016 and will keep you updated on progress over the next two years!
Five Questions for Basket Collectors Martha Ware and Steve Cole
December 3, 2013
Debrah Dunner, curatorial assistant at our Renwick Gallery, interviewed basket collectors Martha Ware and Steve Cole about A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets at the Renwick Gallery. The show is up for six more days, through December 8, 2013.
Eye Level: What prompted you to start collecting baskets?
Martha Ware and Steve Cole: We've often said that a collector doesn't realize they are starting a collection when they first purchase something. Our interest in baskets reflects our longstanding interest in indigenous crafts. We met when we both were Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia in the early 1970s. We loved the native crafts of Colombia. When we returned to the United States, we brought many with us; among them were six baskets. Jump forward about 15 years to a business trip Steve took to Louisville, Kentucky. On a random walk through the downtown area, he bumped into the Kentucky Craft Gallery, founded by Kentucky First Lady Phyllis George to support the crafts of her state. The Gallery included a craft shop where, unexpectedly, he purchased five baskets that day. Two of these by Richard Krupa and Jesse Butcher (attributed) are included in the exhibition. When Steve entered our home upon returning, he said to me, "you're not going to believe what I just did!"
EL: What personal guidelines did you use to build your collection?
MW/SC: Initially, we were less selective than we became. Martha grew up in Arizona so we naturally began to acquire Native American baskets. We also began our search for baskets near our home in Virginia. It wasn't long until we felt the need to narrow our collecting. In particular, we decided to no longer collect Native American baskets, refocusing our collecting on the baskets made by the descendants of American immigrants - primarily the children and grandchildren of African Americans and English and German settlers. There are many baskets in the collection that don't fall into these categories, but many do. Very early, we decided to restrict our collecting to baskets that are entirely handmade from materials harvested by the artisan. We wanted our baskets to be as natural as possible and avoided baskets with dyed material. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we wanted baskets that were traditional—those that were made to do a task, vessels made to hold something.
EL: What were the challenges of collecting you discovered as you went along?
MW/SC: At some point in our collection, we realized that we were creating a collection that was broadly representative or a particular kind of basket: vessels based largely on tradition. Ensuring that the collection achieved this objective was at times a challenge. We wanted to ensure that we had excellent examples of baskets from the widest range of materials, from as many places in the country as there were basket making traditions, and that reflected the uncommon talents of as many contemporary traditional basket makers as we could find. Early on, finding new artisans was a challenge. We went to craft shows. We visited galleries where we might find a new maker. We also simply kept our eyes open for the unexpected, finding baskets in convenience stores (McCauley) and by the side of the road. Eventually, the relatively small community of basket makers began to use the Internet as a way to let the world know about them and their baskets. This helped immensely as we sought to close the last few important holes in the collection.
EL: Why did you decide to donate your collection the Renwick Gallery?
MW/SC: We never gave serious thought to donating our collection to the Renwick. Steve worked on the same block on 17th Street as the Gallery and visited it quite often. Over the years, he came to believe that the Renwick had no interest in the kind of baskets he and Martha collected, ones that leaned heavily to tradition. Our experience of the Renwick was that it exclusively or almost exclusively focused on contemporary studio crafts, ones that tended to the Avant Garde, or, to a lesser extent, toward established artists working in traditional ways whose names were widely recognized, at least in their own fields. Traditional baskets, no matter how finely wrought, no matter how beautiful, are still very humble crafts made by humble people. We never believed the Renwick would have any interest in what we had. At an event at our home, a guest encouraged us to let the Renwick know about our collection. We did and the rest is history.
We are often asked why we have given our collection to the Renwick Gallery at a relatively young age; we are in our mid-60s. The simple answer is that we had the opportunity and believed it might not come again. Curators change, tastes change and so we accepted the Gallery's invitation to donate our collection. Three quarters of the collection has already been donated. Another quarter less a few are promised gifts. The last few we have chosen to leave to our daughters.
EL: What is your favorite basket in the collection, and why?
MW/SC: We don't have one favorite. Martha has especially loved Jennifer Heller Zurick's Black Willow Bark Carrying Basket, #205. Like all of Jennifer's baskets, it has so much life and presence; it breathes. Both of us love Jeffrey Gale's white ash baskets. They reflect what we think are the essential elements of a great basket: excellent materials, uncommonly fine workmanship, excellence in design reflected in just the right balance and proportion. If we had to choose just one of Jeffrey's, it would, no doubt, be the Large Market Basket. We also want to mention Aaron Yakim and Cynthia Taylor. Both as basket makers and as scholars of the craft, Ike and Cindy have made extraordinary contributions. Their white oak baskets are unsurpassed. We especially love Ike's Kentucky Egg Basket, #4-09, and Cindy's Egg Basket with Converging Ribbing, #99-13. Finally, Steve has always loved Bill Cook's Market Basket. In so many ways, he believes it achieves what every traditional basket seeks: beauty, simplicity of design, uncommon quality, and to be used (in our case to hold our dogs' toys for more than two decades). Frankly, it seems a bit unfair not to list all of the baskets and basket makers as our favorites. Each and every basket and its maker have enriched our lives for years. We're truly lucky to have had these baskets and befriended their makers.
What's LOVE Got to do with it?: Barbara Haskell on Robert Indiana
November 26, 2013
Remember when LOVE was all the rage, as opposed to social media's lukewarm, one-size-fits-all, "Like"? Robert Indiana's iconic Pop image from 1970 seemed to sum up the era in its message as well as its delivery: bright colors and strong graphics. Indiana, who has had a long association with the American Art Museum (where the first exhibition of his sculptures was held in 1984), was the subject of the final talk in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series. Barbara Haskell, scholar and curator at the Whitney Museum of Art (where Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE remains on view through January 5, 2014), spoke on the artist's work and shifting reputation.
Where did Indiana's LOVE come from? Perhaps from a lack of it as a child. Born out of wedlock in 1928, he was adopted by the Clarks of Indianapolis and raised by a superstitious mother and a financial failure of a father, who would abandon the family when Robert was ten years old. Indiana, who according to Haskell, wanted to change the unwanted into the wanted, the unloved into the loved, committed the ultimate act of transformation when, at age thirty and living in New York City, he left Robert Clark behind and became Robert Indiana.
According to Haskell, Indiana, like his contemporaries Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist, "drew on the vocabulary of advertising and consumer culture transforming it into high art. In Indiana's case he specifically drew upon highway signs and roadside entertainments and used language, to embed not only autobiographical but cultural references in his work. He created a synthesis of both celebration and criticism of the American dream and what it means to be an individual in American society. In some ways he was a Pop artist and in some ways he charted a course away from Pop."
Haskell traced Indiana's career from early works that used found materials in his lower Manhattan neighborhood (again the theme of transformation), to the explosion of LOVE which became so popular that it took on a "viral" life of its own (even the artist lost control of it and his reputation suffered when it appeared on everything from keychains to coffee mugs), to a new look at the artist's work, of which this iconic painting is only a part.
It's interesting how an artwork can define a period of time, the way LOVE captured the mood of a changing America, which would forever be altered by war and assassination. I wonder what word Indiana would choose today? Would it be LOVE, the infectious yet ho-hum LIKE, or something else?
If you missed Haskell's talk, watch our webcast of her lecture.