In Praise of Islamic Art

By Carla Rapoport March 29, 2019

When artists engage with technology, just about anything can happen. But we tend to forget that the basis of modern technology isn’t bits and bytes, it’s maths, primarily geometry and algebra, developed long ago in the Middle East. Without these disciplines, none of our modern tech tools would exist. These are ancient disciplines offer real breadth for those artists willing to go back to them – or indeed start with them. One of those artists is London-based Zarah Hussain, winner of the Lumen People’s Choice Award in 2017.

Lumen had the honour of assisting Zarah in developing a large commission for this year’s winner of the London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest, which will come to life later this year. I caught up with Zarah recently to talk about this and other topics.


What are your main inspirations?

I studied Islamic Art and the art and architecture of the Islamic world continue to inspire me. I love the Alhambra in Spain and someday I would really like to visit Iran. I also find nature very inspiring and when the weather is nice, I like to be outside as much as I can. Lastly, I try to read as much as I can. I love reading and becoming immersed in a good book is a great way to decompress and to find some distance from my work.


Delighted you’re working on a big installation for the London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest. Can you tell us about it?

Yes, in October I will be creating a large site-specific installation in the Wetlands in Waltham Forest. This project brings together many things that I am interested in. The piece is inspired by water molecules and it will have light, colour, music and large sculptural forms inspired by the six-fold patterning of ice molecules. I can’t give away too much information about it now! The big reasons for me doing the project is to raise awareness about climate change, the risk to our global supply of water and the melting glaciers and ice-sheets. This subject is very important to me and I feel that more conversation and action on climate change is crucial to our future.


What’s the most exciting thing about the project?

Working on a large scale and outdoors is very exciting. It will be the first time I have done something like this.


In the meantime, what else are you working on?

I have a solo show in 2020 at Gallery Oldham and I am developing new work for this.


Some artists say that their practice could easily take over their life. As you have young children, do you find the art/life balance difficult?

My working day centres around my children. I do most of my work when they are at school. It is important to achieve a good work/life balance. If you spend too much time on your work, you can easily get burnt out and tired.


Do you have any big influences, mentors or artists who inspire you?

My geometry teachers Paul Marchant and Keith Critchlow were amazing and I an very grateful for my two years at the Prince’s School.

I am very inspired by female Artists and those from minority backgrounds. Particularly those that were working at a time where it was more difficult for women and minorities to be recognised. I like loads of different artists for lots of different reasons – almost too many to mention – Frida Kahlo, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Sara Sze, Agnes Martin, Olafur Eliasson, Bill Viola, Shazia Sikander. I try to go and see as much as I can – being in London, I am very lucky.


What in particular did you find helpful about winning the People’s Choice Award?

The Lumen Prize is great for getting great exposure for your work. I would recommend entering – you never know what what connections you might make and what exciting possibilities that may arise from the experience!

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