Stephanie Tung: Having a baby during the pandemic was definitely wild. We got pregnant months and months before the pandemic, and so I had anticipated having family around and having a lot of help and people to celebrate the birth in June. But then all of our parents are in New Jersey. They're all in the highest risk categories. We decided it didn’t make sense for any of our families to be up here. Giving birth without that family was very difficult.
[Hee heee whooo whooo…]
The hee heehee whoo whoo that was what was taught during the birthing classes. But then actually when I was in labor I found out I was reverting more toward techniques of breathing I'd used when I was in high school. I was a flutist in high school. And I was in the marching band. And part of being a flutist is you're supposed to have a very even breath.
You want to have a very consistent flow of breathing so that the sound you're producing from the flute is even, instead of, like, wavering all over the place. And so I was a flutist for about, probably eight years? So I started, actually, subconsciously reverting to that kind of breathing which is much more even. It's not so rhythmic. It's much more like a long inhale and then an exhale that's like:
And that sort of carried me through the pain of labor, which was quite interesting. I didn’t realize that was happening.
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin. In this episode, we reflect on the power of the breath. To recognize how essential breath is to life. And how it connects us all from birth to death.
Stephanie: There's something I think about breathing together that I think is very powerful. Even though your partner is not the one giving birth, just understanding how the breathing works and having somebody there who can help you was really good.
Dinah: That’s Stephanie Tung. Her story served as inspiration for Zarah Hussain’s Breath exhibition now on view in PEM’s new meditation gallery.
Stephanie: Thinking about how precious that life-giving breath is. So it wasn't really until I talked to Zarah where we connected the dots to that.
Dinah: Stephanie gave birth to her daughter Maia in June 2020.
Though she didn’t expect to enter motherhood during a deadly pandemic, Stephanie tries to see the silver linings where she can.
Stephanie: She recently met my grandmother who was born in 1919. So my grandmother is 102 years old and my daughter is zero. And so there's something there I was thinking about that in terms of circles of life, and also the fragility of all it. And it was very emotional to think about how vulnerable we are in terms of this pandemic and this disease. There was a lot of reflection during these last couple of months.
Dinah: And we’re still reflecting. 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.
Stephanie: She will have no memory of, like, the hardships of this year. She's just kind of very happy-go-lucky. And in that sense, I do think for us, as like a family, seeing her and seeing her grow has been sort of amazing through the pandemic. There’s just this sentiment of 'Wow, life does go on.' She's still going to grow. The world keeps spinning.
But then in terms of what I will tell her, I'll probably tell her that 2020 was a difficult year. A lot of people suffered and there was a lot of pain, and it was a time when there was a lot of anxiety.
Dinah: This anxiety and how to get through it is what we look at in today’s episode, mainly through the creation of a new exhibition at PEM that asks us to just stop and take a breath. Zarah Hussain’s geometric works attempt to explain the universal. God, in the Islamic tradition, similar to the Jewish tradition, is abstract.
There is no human form. The repeating patterns of traditional Islamic art approximate and suggest the concept of infinity and divine presence.
Zarah: Just this idea of spirituality being contained in something that has no form, that's formless, that allows you as the viewer to put into that your own self.
Dinah: This is London-based artist, Zarah Hussain.
Zarah: You have to bring your own knowledge and understanding and emotion and story to that geometric work, and the idea of infinity, and things going on and on and repeating forever. The whole idea that repetition is soothing. And just having that, it's kind of quite a profound thing.
Dinah: Profound enough to return to this theme during lockdown.
Zarah: Yeah, so lockdown happened and everything went quiet. So we were only allowed out for forty minutes a day to exercise, we had to stay at home. We weren’t allowed out, I didn’t have much studio space. I have children to look after because they were off school. I just thought, I need to do something. So I started to clear out my studio to look at old work, and I came across these paintings, these Breath paintings I'd done when I was recovering from surgery.
Dinah: The surgery was to correct her breathing, and the experience inspired Zarah to explore breath through painting.
Zarah: I was learning to breathe again and I was learning to breathe properly because I hadn't been breathing properly, and that’s what the operation was to fix. And it was harder than you think, and you think 'oh, well, breathing's so natural. Everyone should know how to breathe' you know? Why would you not know how to breathe? But you find when you’re not breathing properly and you start to breathe properly, it’s a big difference.
I totally sympathize now, with the people who are going through Covid and can't breathe properly. It's so distressing to feel that you can’t breathe properly. It's so primordial and so linked to being alive, that when you can't breathe, I think it just triggers all sorts of things in your brain to think you're dying. 'I can't breathe, I'm dying.' And then that anxiety just ramps up and ramps up and you can become a quivering wreck.
Dinah: Zarah says there is a holistic way of looking at the breath and the body. In China there is the concept of chi (circulating life force) and in India there is prana (the circulating life-giving energy of breath).
Zarah: And anybody, I would recommend anybody sit down, take a deep breath, sit up straight, and try to breathe in slowly five seconds in, five seconds out. You will notice that after five to ten minutes of doing that you feel different. We're on the go, we’re rushing around, we're doing stuff. And I think a lot of the time we shallow breathe. We're just moving from one thing to the other. And we don't stop to think, 'hang on, I need to just rest. Breathe. And get some oxygen inside me.
Dinah: Zarah’s series became a very timely commission at PEM this winter. It all started in the Before Times when Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s Curator of South Asian Art, reached out to Zarah while in London, requesting a simple cup of tea.
Siddhartha: So I was first exposed to Zarah's work through a friend of mine. And I had told her...PEM's got this amazing collection of modern and contemporary Indian art, but that I'm not really looking for artists who are just defined by India. So artists of the diaspora, and she said 'Well, you should really look at Zarah's work.' And so I checked it out and I thought it was fascinating, and when I was in London a few years ago, I just contacted her. And I said I don’t have anything specific to talk about. I just would like to meet you and learn more about your work. So we met for tea one afternoon and just sat done and had a nice little conversation, and in the end I knew I wanted to keep following her and what she was doing.
Dinah: The two of them had a lot in common, submerged in the art world they were about the same age and both the children of South Asian immigrants.
Their friendship continued into the lockdown.
Zarah: I was posting up the paintings I was doing on the breath on my Instagram, and he'd send me a little message, and I'd send him a message back. And then he had sent a message that he was on his own. So I would try to check in with him, like, three or four days to see. You know, because I felt like, you know, I'm with my family, I've got my children, I've got people around me. I felt, 'oh, it must be really hard being in lockdown on your own.' And it must be really difficult, just not being able to see other people and not have human contact. So we were in contact, we were chatting. I'm sending him images and things. And then this whole conversation came up, he said, 'Look, I've got this idea. There's a meditation gallery, and I think you'd be perfect. Let's talk about it.'
Dinah: Zarah’s work, four pairs of paintings and immersive animation, is the first to be exhibited in PEM’s newly dedicated meditation gallery.
Siddharth: I saw these Breath paintings and I was just deeply moved by them. I think because I have that background in yoga and it's just something I'm really interested in. I immediately saw what she was trying to do and I just thought they were so beautiful.
We're looking at a pair of paintings in Zarah's exhibition Breath, and these are entitled Inhale 1 and Inhale 2. And like all the other works that are painted, these are dodecahedron wooden panels.
We have here on the wall 'Breath is life.' And . . . like, how much clearer could that be than now...That has always been true...But the fact that so many have lost their ability to breathe because of Covid-19—and the death of George Floyd. I think that our awareness of and appreciation for the breath is stronger than it has been in a long time, and I really hope that we maintain that.
Jurrien Timmer: I work in the investment industry. I look at global macro, which is kind of the top down view of the world in terms of finance, economics, so I look at central bank policy and interest rates and all this stuff.
Dinah: This is Jurrien Timmer, a PEM Board member who recently endowed the museum’s new meditation gallery where Zarah Hussain: Breath is on view.
Jurrien’s job is to piece together a puzzle that looks at the economy and finds the narrative in the markets, looking at history, coming up with themes so that people can manage their finances. He’s often interviewed on major news outlets.
Jurrien: In my more left brain former life, I would watch these shows, CNBC and etc. and think I want to be on that show, I want to be relevant, I want to be heard. And now I’m on those shows and I don’t watch them. I’ve tuned myself out of that constant chatter that we see on TV and on Twitter and it allows me to focus on the bigger picture and the path forward.
Dinah: Jurrien cycles, hikes, does yoga and mediates. And he says, he only realized the importance of mindfulness, of stopping and slowing down, or focusing on your breath even on a bike , about ten years ago.
Jurrien: Again, I was always mindlessly pursuing the American dream. I need to have this car, that house. My kids need to go to this school. At a certain point, in my case, I should have achieved it all. And now what, this isn’t particularly fulfilling. It just made me search for more. It’s all about balance. I don’t want to turn into a complete hippie and never have a job again, but I also don't want to be living in this two dimensional world where I don’t see the connectivity in this two-dimensional universe. It’s finding that balance that is crucial.
Dinah: Several years ago Jurrien (Yurrien) was meditating on a mountain top out West and nearly missed his speaking engagement. But this taught him a valuable lesson.
Jurrien: One of my favorite hikes is CamelBack Mountain. I was staying at a resort at the bottom of the mountain, your typical conference hotel. I was due to deliver a keynote address at a conference. I thought I have time to go up there. I’m a pretty good hiker. I was just kind of caught up in the moment I just got lost in time. I was sitting there, talking to some people, I was meditating. All of a sudden I look at my watch. I’m like oh my god, I have to be on stage in 45 minutes, and it takes an hour to get down so I just kind of got completely into the zen and I basically ran down the mountain.
Dinah: After catching an UBER at the bottom of the mountain and getting a shower at the hotel, he skated into the room five minutes late but refreshed and focused.
Jurien: I and everyone else probably tries to replicate that so that you can be truly in the flow of things if you will. It creates the focus and that was a real adrenaline rush and it kind of cleanses your mind in a way, having that sense of quiet peace in your mind even though you are running down a hill, it’s a really good way to set up for what I would call a peak performance.
Dinah: In the mediation gallery, visitors can have multisensory experiences that underscore the relationship between spirituality and art. Something that is surprisingly rare at museums. Again, Siddhartha Shah:
Siddhartha: Spirituality is often divorced from art history and, like, academic spaces, but I think that for a museum to be more accessible to people, we need to understand that spirituality, whether you call it that or not, pervades so many peoples' lives and we should acknowledge that. And it's been an inspiration for art for so long. So I'm grateful that just this space is here now.
Dinah: Integrating spirituality and wellness into the museum’s offerings are a top priority for Siddartha in 2021.
Siddhartha: Yeah, so I think there's going to be a mental health crisis, or there is already, or there is gonna be, this being kind of like the Roaring Twenties. Or like people are just gonna be, like, wild and not be able to integrate the wildness in like a balanced way. And so part of the wellness initiative is just, you know, it's important to me to take care of my spirit, my emotions, my body. And so we'll be starting a Being Well initiative at PEM which is addressing everything from physical movement and embodied learning, things like yoga practice or walking meditation. As well as how to deal with stress management or anxiety reduction.
Dinah: PEM’s Being Well initiative kicks off February School Vacation Week, and seeks to improve the physical, emotional and spiritual well being of our community. From mindfulness and meditation to art making and storytelling, PEM is finding new ways to help people heal and thrive.
Dinah: Siddhartha will lead this charge, drawing an obvious connection between art and wellness, in his newly expanded role as PEM’s new Director of Education and Civic Engagement.
Siddhartha: Maybe that will be my mark. I mean, because it always has been for me. I have not been well for a large part of my life. I, you know, was made fun of a lot as a kid, I was obese and people made me know that. Like, all through my teenage years, and the one thing I had to turn to was just a lot of beautiful things to look at. And it was a huge part of my kind of process of healing, was just to surround myself with beauty and images. And I think that is how I ended up becoming an art historian was because of the wellness I got from looking at art. And I think I'm not the only one in the world that has found healing through art. So I'm excited to keep moving this forward here.
Zarah: If there's any good takeaways from this pandemic: be grateful for your health if you have good health. There is good in the world and, you know, there's things to look forward to. We are humans and we are bound together. We’re all on this planet. We share so much together. We breathe the same air.
Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. Zarah Hussain: Breath is on view at PEM until 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 your own home, enjoy a relaxing evening of working with clay.
Dinah: This episode was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin and it was edited and mixed by Jenn Stanley.
The soundscape you heard in this episode is featured in the exhibition and was created by Afta8. Also, special thanks to Zarrah Hussain, Siddhartha Shah, Stephanie Tung and Jurrien. Jurrien’s generous gift to PEM helped create a space of meditation and reflection. To find out how to make a similar gift to an area of interest, reach out to our development team. You can find Amanda Clark MacMullen at pem.org.
In a future episode, we’ll explore the very roots of philanthropy...and how they connect right back to PEM. Stay tuned….for more episodes of the PEMcast.