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PEMcast 20: Just breathe

From Peabody Essex Museum

By Dinah Cardin


We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of taking the biggest collective pause of our lives. In March 2020, when the world shut down, those used to charging ahead felt challenged by the hard stop. The pace of life more indoors, more inward has meant having to exercise patience and practice a mindful preparation for what life will be like after the pandemic.

In this episode of the PEMcast, we look at a perfectly timed meditative exhibition, paintings commissioned by PEM, that examine the human inhale and exhale. For several reasons, BREATH could have been the official word of 2020. London-based artist Zarah Hussain took the idea of the perfect breath — five-and-a-half seconds in and the same out — and created her geometric works that attempt to explain the universal.

We kick off PEM’s new Being Well initiative with interviews with Hussain and a woman whose 2020 birth experience provided inspiration for an immersive animation in the exhibition.

Photo by Stephanie Tung

“If there are any good takeaways from this pandemic, and the forced lockdown we’ve had, it’s to be grateful for your health and be aware of how fragile it is,” says Hussain.

Zarah Hussain. Photo by Navid Akhtar

We speak with Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s Curator of South Asian Art, who brought Hussain’s exhibition to PEM. Shah will be leading the museum’s new wellness initiative, drawing an obvious connection between art and wellness, in his newly expanded role as PEM’s new Director of Education and Civic Engagement.

“I think that is how I ended up becoming an art historian, because of the wellness I got from looking at art,” says Shah.

And I think I’m not the only one in the world that has found healing through art.

Siddhartha studying a painting in PEM’s Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

Healing is something we all seek in this moment when experts predict a major national mental health crisis. We also speak with a PEM board member who has been discovering the benefits of mindfulness and mediation and using them in his own life. That’s why Jurrien Timmer has endowed PEM’s new meditation gallery, to help others discover the healing power of their own breath.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, extreme political polarization and rising awareness over systemic racial injustice, we have been searching for relief and joy through personal triumphs and milestones.

We invite you to stop, take a breath and enjoy this episode.

Zarah Hussain: Breath is on view at PEM through June 20, 2021 and COVID safety protocols are in place. If you are unable to visit, you can also experience the relaxing, centering effects of the exhibition online. To experience your own breathing meditation, go to the exhibition page on pem.org and customize a piece inspired by Zarah’s work and then breathe along to the changing colors.

PEM’s Being Well initiative seeks to foster creativity and reduce stress. Join us during School Vacation Week, beginning February 15, as we find new ways to help both educators and students. And for adults, join us on the evening of February 18th for our ongoing series Create Night. Grab a beverage, and from the comfort of home, enjoy a relaxing evening of working with clay.

This episode was produced by Dinah Cardin and edited and mixed by Jenn Stanley. Akiyo Nishimiya transcribed our interviews. The soundscape you heard in this episode is featured in the exhibition and was created by Afta8. Find all of the PEMcast episodes on Soundcloud, your podcast app or HERE on PEM’s website.


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