Zarah Hussain Turns COVID Lockdown Stories into Meditative Art Focused on Breathing

Zarah Hussain

SALEM, MA  This December, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) explores the universal sanctity of breath through a series of commissioned paintings, accompanied with animation and soundscape, by British artist Zarah Hussain. Moving through inhalations and exhalations, as well as the silent spaces in between, Hussain’s work — produced in London while the artist was under COVID-19 lockdown — utilizes the universal principles of geometry to guide us into moments of deep contemplation and stillness.

Mining her own reflections and experiences, Hussain’s work was also informed by interviews with local community members, including a respiratory therapist and a pregnant woman, who have lived through the physical trauma of losing their breath or its transformative healing power. Zarah Hussain: Breath is on view at PEM from December 19, 2020 through June 20, 2021.

Photo by Stefan Lacandler.

Spiritual Transformation

Spiritual traditions around the world have long used breath as a tool for transformation and awakening. The perfect breath is about five-and-a-half seconds in and five-and-a-half out, says Hussain. Feeling isolated during quarantine, Hussain picked back up a body of work titled Inhale and Exhale that she had made after a surgery to correct her own breathing. The artist, who sees things mathematically, was able to turn this equation of breath into a sort of holy geometry that both pays tribute to sacred Islamic art. “These paintings were a visual interpretation of what it would look like to breathe in and to breathe out,” says Hussain. “It’s only when something like this disease comes along that you realize how fundamental, essential, and powerful the simple act of breathing is.”

“Hussain’s work lies at the intersection of science and spirituality and melds ancient traditions of meditation and breathwork with contemporary technology,” says Siddhartha V. Shah, PEM’s Director of Education and Civic Engagement and Curator of South Asian Art. “We hope visitors will accept this exhibition’s invitation to slow down and activate a deeper awareness of, and connection with, breath.”

The exhibition is intimate in scale and immersive in nature. It features an evocative animation and soundscape that uses the same in and out breath count as the paintings and encourages visitors to follow along. “We live in a world where we are constantly on,” says Hussain. “There is such a benefit to just slowing down and being quiet. Taking time and focus to look inwards, to sit and breathe quietly, to meditate, to contemplate. There’s a real power in reclaiming time for yourself.”

Exhibition Programming

Conversation with Zarah Hussain
Thursday, November 12 | 4 pm

Join Zarah Hussain and Curator Siddhartha Shah for GenPEM Artists from Home Virtual Q&A with Zarah Hussain. The event is free and open to the public. The conversation is introduced by Trevor Smith, Associate Director – Multisensory Experience, Curator of the Present Tense, and Kerry Schneider, GenPEM and Development Communications Officer. $20 suggested donation | Register HERE

Connect & Create: Zarah Hussain Virtual Workshop
Thursday, December 3 | 4 pm

Join a PEM educator Andrea Macri in real-time from the comfort of your home for the opportunity to explore something new, be creative and make art! First, harness your breath, and learn about the upcoming exhibition Zarah Hussain: Breath with Curator Siddhartha Shah. Then explore color theory and create your own oil pastel with materials provided to you by PEM. Registration is time sensitive and limited. Mailing address required upon registration to receive your materials. Recommended for ages 12 and up. Members and teens $10 | Nonmembers $20 | Register HERE

Alive With Air
Sunday, December 20 | 9 am

Join PEM for a special yoga program to transform and awaken through breath. This restorative class with instructors from The Salty Buddha Yoga Studio in Salem will help welcome the winter solstice and release the energy of 2020. After class, explore Zarah Hussain’s work inside PEM’s intimate Jurrien Timmer Gallery. Special members-only perk: free registration for the livestream. In-person tickets are limited. Please bring your own mat. Masks are required at all times. In-Person Drop-In: $15 | Livestream Drop-In: $5, free for members | Learn more HERE


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