Turning COVID Lockdown Stories into Meditative Art
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 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.
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 breathing. The artist was able to turn this equation of breath into a geometry that pays tribute to 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 the time and focus to look inwards, to sit and breathe quietly, to meditate, to contemplate. There’s real power in reclaiming time for yourself.”
Zarah Hussain: Breath is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum. Jurrien Timmer, Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation, Jennifer and Andrew Borggaard, James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Kate and Ford O’Neil, Henry and Callie Brauer provided generous support. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.
Over the last 20 years, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. Founded in 1799, it is also the country’s oldest continuously operating museum. At its heart is a mission to enrich and transform lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. PEM celebrates outstanding artistic and cultural creativity through exhibitions, programming and special events that emphasize cross-cultural connections, integrate past and present and underscore the vital importance of creative expression. The museum’s collection is among the finest of its kind, including American art and architecture, Asian export art, photography, maritime art and history, Native American, Oceanic, and African art, as well as one of the most important museum-based collections of rare books and manuscripts.