A healing show made for a troubled time, Zarah Hussain’s “Breath” offers an age-old request: to slow down, to breathe deeply, and to get in touch with who and where we are. The multi-media exhibition at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, and accompanying online content, could not be timelier. Global and local communities alike are mourning the insurmountable loss of life from COVID-19; the climate crisis is systemically and sporadically resulting in air pollution and wildfires which threaten our airways; and the last words of George Floyd (and so many others across generations and countries), “I can’t breathe,” have sounded an alarm in our collective minds. In the midst of it all, Hussain’s vibrant, concentric patterns resonate deeply with our most fundamental needs for health, healing and peace. Through subject matter, mediums and methods which match the moment and the movement with equal power and depth, “Breath” is a call to action in the most vital yet radical sense. Clearly influenced by traditional Islamic design, Hussain’s work gracefully echoes age-old knowledge espoused by many cultures, allowing viewers to explore their inhalations, exhalations and spaces in between.
Though commissioned at an opportune time, the works in “Breath” were originally inspired in pre-COVID life by Hussain’s own experience of losing and regaining breath due to health problems. Since then she’s done a significant amount of medicinal, cultural and spiritual research into the simultaneously banal, essential and often-neglected act of breathing. In a virtual interview this winter with the U.K.-based artist, Hussain explained that across cultures the breath is said to contain our spirit or our life force. In Chinese culture, for example, it’s called chi; in Indian culture, it’s prana; in the Māori world view it’s called mauri. “The breath is who you are,” Hussain told me. “And even in our culture of Islam the idea is that God breathes life into humans. And our breath is our life.” Indeed, like breath itself, her work awakens us to that invisible bond between the body and the soul.
If we were to measure our vitality by our breath, it seems that in the aggregate our score would be much lower than we’d hope for. Neuroscientists are now finding that many ubiquitous low-level illnesses like anxiety and depression can be traced back to breathing problems: when we aren’t breathing properly we live in a state of fight or flight, always in anticipation of danger.
Some doctors are even considering the idea of sending patients to long-term breathing courses instead of prescribing medication — Hussain maintains that at times the former might be more beneficial. And yet, “Breath” is less a prescription than it is an invitation.
For Hussain, museums are spaces in which to replenish the soul. To her, “Art and culture and creativity is about color and light and joy. And for me, as a believer, there’s this spiritual connection to God which is joyful and serene and calm.” But, she told me, you don’t have to be a believer to access such feelings of peace and belonging: “For some people it might be they see it when they go and look at the moon, or when they sit in a forest or when they’re at the beach.”
Her hope is that “Breath” can provide such an experience to those able to access it. In her symmetrical, mandala-esque patterns which will hang on the walls of the Peabody Essex Museum through June 20, her experience, research and artistic talent culminate in a show that transcends individual identity and gets to the heart of what connects us. In a time of crisis and beyond, her work is a reminder to breathe — to rejoice in the pleasure and privilege of that most basic necessity.
(“Zarah Hussain: Breath” is on view through June 20 at Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem, Massachusetts. The museum is currently open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and on holiday Mondays; tickets should be reserved in advance at pem.org/tickets or by calling (978) 542-1511. For more information, visit pem.org.)