Long before the coronavirus started making its way around the planet, Zarah Hussain had been thinking about breath. Focused on the intersection of science and spirituality, Hussain melds ancient traditions of meditation and breathwork with contemporary technology. The resulting work pays tribute to sacred Islamic art and through geometric patterns, evokes inhalations and exhalations, as well as the silent spaces in between.

While in lockdown, Hussain produced a series of breath-themed paintings for a thought-provoking and intimate installation for the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. Zarah Hussain: Breath will be on view through the Spring of 2021.

The idea came from earlier works Hussain had produced after experiencing breathing difficulties following a surgery. For inspiration for the PEM commission, the artist interviewed locals in the Salem area, including a respiratory therapist and a pregnant woman, to understand their relationship to breath. 

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. The exhibition also features animation and an immersive soundscape that uses the same in and out breath count and encourages visitors to follow along. 

“If there’s one good thing to come from the pandemic, it would be for people to stop and think about their breath,” says Hussain. “When you slow it down, the breath is so profound, yet so simple. And it’s free. You don’t need an instructor. You don’t need lots of money. Just learning how to breathe properly is a gateway to much better physical and mental health.”

Visit pem.org to learn more.

Zarah Hussain: Breath continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts) through June 20, 2021.

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