When the world went into lockdown last year and the devastating effects of COVID-19 played out in hospitals and on television screens, painter Zarah Hussain remembered her own respiratory trauma. A difficult pregnancy had precipitated a tear in her diaphragm. Three years ago, she had surgery to repair it.
“It was immensely traumatic to heal and recover. And the thing that really profoundly helped me was the breath,” she said in a Zoom conversation from her home in London. “Count in eight and count out eight. That’s really difficult to do when you’re in a state of stress or anxiety.”
As she recovered, she made paintings about breathing. When COVID struck, she thought of them.
In “Zarah Hussain: Breath” at the Peabody Essex Museum, her luminous concentric paintings and a rippling digital animation help viewers to attend to their own breathing.
The exhibition is part of a rising tide of art that quietly suggests, as Mary Oliver does in her poem “Wild Geese,” “You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.”
“We can all identify with the breath, the pandemic, and the need to manage our stress,” said Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s director of education and civic engagement.
Shah has a master’s degree in psychoanalysis at the California Institute for Integral Studies, a holistic-minded school, where he focused on the healing powers of embodiment: touch, movement, sensation.
He’s also the museum’s curator of South Asian art, with a PhD in art history from Columbia. He sees a schism between his two passions that also exists in museum culture.
“Spirituality and embodiment are really divorced from academic research,” Shah said. “It’s so head-focused. We have to bring it into the gut, into the heart, into the body.”
He is spearheading PEM’s new “Being Well” initiative, promoting wellness in the community. Hussain’s exhibition is part of that program, and the museum hosts monthly “Create Nights” on Zoom for intergenerational hands-on art projects.
“Civic engagement is about sharing that we care,” Shah said. “Museums have not been that good at that in the past.”
But artists have been. Last spring, painter Chanel Thervil sat alone in her Roxbury studio and worried.
“I was losing a lot of my art employment. All of the paid gigs I have had disappeared,” Thervil said. “I was wanting to make art to make me feel better and safely connect with other creatives of color, to have conversations about how they maintained their self-care.”
So she began a passion project — her “Quarantine Self-Care Series,” featuring portraits of artists she unveils on Instagram Live (@chanelthervil) in a broadcast she calls “Portraits & Pajamas.” Thervil and her subject don comfy clothes and chat about maintaining balance and prioritizing pleasure in the face of the upending year we’ve had — a hard one for everyone, but especially for communities of color.
“There it is,” Thervil sang as she revealed painter and designer Sabrina Dorsainvil’s warm, smiling portrait in a “Portraits & Pajamas” broadcast last September. “A portrait of you!”
Thervil and other artists are making gentle work, aimed to warm and comfort, to prompt pleasure and joy, and to engage with the community.
“We’ve all had such a hard year,” said painter Silvia López Chavez, (@silvialopezchavez) whose fizzy, vibrant new mural “deLight,” spilling with tropical colors and buzzing with rhythmic patterns, is on view inside the Prudential Center into the spring.
“I think joy is a way of fighting back,” she said. “Without it — without the music, the dancing, the artmaking — we can’t sustain the fight for the long run.”
Before COVID, Evelyn Rydz ran “Comida Casera” (meaning homemade or comfort food), a peripatetic gathering around a table for a meal and storytelling. In lockdown, she knew food couldn’t be tasted online, but stories could still be shared.
So she launched “Recetas de Casa,” or “Recipes From Home.” Twenty participants Zoom in from around the world to share recipes that remind them of home, and tell the stories behind them. The next one will take place in April; Rydz will post details on Instagram @comidacaseraproject.
“There’s a sense of belonging,” Rydz said. “I love the moments when someone shares a story about the plantains their grandmother made, and someone from a different country has a plantain memory.”
The artist, known for her environmental focus, said that all her work revolves around the notion of care.
“The care going into a handmade drawing. The care we have for community and strangers,” she said. “Small actions have big, long-lasting ripple effects.”
Art that holds up community is not new. Rydz has a forebear in Rirkrit Tiravanija, the Thai artist who started cooking meals for gallery-goers in the 1990s. Thervil’s portraits belong in a strong lineage of Black figurative art that celebrates Black resilience in the face of white supremacy. López Chavez works in a tradition of exuberant public art.
But the upwelling of warm and fuzzy art now may be a larger acknowledgment of trauma. As a society, we have a history of turning a blind eye to personal and societal traumas. Maybe we’re getting better at reckoning with them, even if resistance is still powerful.
“In counseling psychology, we learn that if you get a wound, it’s just like if you get a cut,” Shah said. “You have to look at it, wash it. You can’t run, and you can’t cover up the wound.”
And letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves is intrinsic to healing.
In Hussain’s animation “Breath,” puddles of 12-sided rings of color expand and contract at roughly the rate of respiration. It has a wonderfully calming effect. The rhythm, the illumination, and the revitalizing floral palette salve the spirit.
These artworks knit together body and soul. And maybe they help us prepare for what comes in the pandemic’s wake.
“Maybe normal can be different. I’m hoping that we look at the way we live from a more spiritual perspective, a slowed down perspective, a perspective where we care for our neighbors,” Hussain said. “That’s what makes us human.”
ZARAH HUSSAIN: BREATH
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem, through Jan. 2, 2022. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.