Interview by Louisa Buck
Zarah Hussain (born 1980 in Cheshire, lives and works in London) combines contemporary digital art with a training in hand drawn Islamic geometry. Her work encompasses animations made with code, interactive apps, painting and sculpture. Numina, commissioned by the Barbican in 2016, combined animated geometric patterns on to a pyramidal wall sculpture set within a hexagonal grid, and in the same year she created an interactive digital animation for the Islamic Art Festival in Sharjah Art Museum. In 2014 Hussain had a solo show at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Public commissions include a permanent mural for Walthamstow (2017), projections on to the façade of William Morris Gallery (2017) and works for waiting rooms in The Royal London Hospital (2012). In 2017 Hussain won the People’s Choice Award for the Lumen Prize for Digital Art for Numina.
Hussain’s work Blue Hexagon (2004), a painting in hand-ground watercolour, appeared on the cover of a-n Magazine, October 2004. In the first-person artist story on p5 she wrote: “my paintings are inspired by patterns from all over the Islamic world and I am fascinated by the sense of vibration, energy and spirituality present in geometry.”What have been the main changes you’ve experienced as an artist over the last 10 to 20 years?
The main change I have experienced is the growth in the digital sphere and the massive potential it offers to artists. I have always loved technology. I bought my first mobile phone in 1998 and I did an evening course in web design in 2000 to build my own artist website. Since then, with the rise of social media and the huge advances in technology it has become so much easier to have a presence in the multiple digital spaces out there. It is much easier to share work, to collaborate, to find other creative people, to pursue niche ideas and interests.
If you have a specific painting query there will be a forum somewhere that can answer your question. In my everyday practice this easy access to tech can be a blessing and a curse! Sometimes I will force myself to keep my phone out of the studio because I need some mental space to figure out issues in my painting, or simply because I need to think. I am the queen of procrastination and the buzzing and beeping of my phone can be a huge distraction! I can spend hours and hours just scrolling on Instagram, so overall while it is a good thing, for me, it has to be used in moderation.20 years into the 21st century, what is the role of art and the artist?
In 2020, I spent my time thinking deeply about two things: Covid-19 and the death of George Floyd. Both these things will have a deep and profound impact on the arts.
Firstly, the global pandemic has made me reflect and think about my work in a new way. I personally believe that artists have a huge role to play in helping society process the trauma and difficulties we have faced because of Covid-19. The art world won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic. There are already job losses and huge financial difficulties for many. I don’t want to downplay the challenges ahead, but artists are resilient and creative and I think we have a huge role in healing, processing and making sense of this collective global trauma through creativity and making art.
Secondly, if like me you are from a minority background it is something you are never allowed to forget. It is the dark current that underpins everyday life. All my working life I have worked in the creative industries − firstly in television production and then in the visual arts. Often, in both these arenas, I have been the only person of colour in the room. I believe that the role of art is to increase understanding of other people, cultures and backgrounds, to see things from multiple perspectives. To shine a light on creativity from all over the world, not to only see things through the viewpoint of old white men. Many in the art world have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by promising to change. I really hope that they do.Images:
Header: Zarah Hussain, Numina, installation view, Barbican, 2017.
1. Zarah Hussain.
2. Zarah Hussain, Numina, installation view, Barbican, 2017.
3. Zarah Hussain, Inhale III, acrylic paint on panel, 110cm diameter.
Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.