Touring exhibition: Zarah Hussain’s Light Upon Light

Our latest touring show, Zarah Hussain’s exhibition Light Upon Light, opens at Rugby Museum & Art Gallery on 18 September and runs until 9 October 2021. After that it will travel to Gallery Oldham (delayed from January 2020) and will be exhibited from 22 January until 14 May 2022. Light Upon Light will then be on display at The Atkinson, Southport from 11 June to 24 September 2022.

In this blog, we chat to Zarah Hussain about life as an artist and her new work.

Hi Zarah, thanks for chatting to us. 

When you were at school what did you want to do when you grew up? 

Art was always my favourite subject at school. At that time I didn’t really know that you could be a full time artist. My parents and teachers encouraged me to pursue more academic subjects, in the end I went to University to study English and History, after that I got a job at the BBC as a researcher.

I never gave up on my love for art, I carried on painting and making work. I saw an opportunity to do an MA in Islamic Art in London and I applied – i was very lucky to get a full scholarship to move to London and pursue my dream.

Have you always managed to work as an artist?

Working full-time as an artist is not always easy. Most practising artists I know have other sidelines, such as teaching or other part-time work. Once I had graduated, I carried on working in the media, in some ways it was the perfect complementary career as it is freelance and you can choose when you want to work. 

Since 2011 I have been working more or less as an artist full time with a bit of teaching from time to time..

What motivates you to get into your studio each day?

I normally work from 9.15 to 3pm everyday, this is my window to concentrate and get as much as possible done while my kids are in school.

There is nothing like a deadline to motivate work! Joking aside, I love my work and I feel very privileged to be able to do what I love for a living. It is fun and exciting to make and create – I am very lucky. 

Are there any other artists who inspire you? Does your inspiration come from anywhere else?

Lots and lots of artists inspire me. Specifically, I like to see work that is inspired by the Islamic world and also mathematical and hard edge geometric work. I love the work of  Monir Farmanfarmaian, her glass mosaics are amazing, Agnes Martin, Barbara Hepworth, Bridget Riley, Mary Martin, the artist Anila Quayyum Agha does some awe-inspiring installations. There are so many inspirational women and artists out there. 

I try to see as many exhibitions as I can, I think everything you do and all your experiences combine to inspire work and for me I always keep an open mind and experience as much culture as possible. The last two stand out shows I went to see were ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian painting for the East India Company’ at the Wallace collection and ‘Epic Iran’ at the V&A. 

Geometric artwork by Zarah Hussain

How long ago did you have the idea for this new series? Was it an entirely new process for you?

I have been wanting to work more with geometric 3D shapes for a while now. I first started painting on 3D surfaces back in 2014, using cast resin to create the shapes. However, resin is quite expensive, heavy and laborious to produce. I have spent quite a lot of time in research and development to try and come up with a process that was more efficient and cheaper. Finally, after many prototypes and experimentation I was able to achieve the quality and finish required to make many identical multiple shapes. This exhibition is the first time I have shown works made with this process. 

Are you planning to use these techniques again in the future, or have you got ideas for new projects using different methods after this?

I feel like this exhibition is just the start – now that I have perfected the technique of making these shapes there are so many things I can do. I would really like to start using curves in my work to make softer, more biomorphic designs. So watch this space!

How do you choose which colours to use? Do you have favourite colour combinations?

Every piece I do starts off with a drawing, I will do many many many multiples until I get the colours right. Sometimes it is easy and straightforward, other times it can take a long time to get the colour tone and balance right. It is quite an intuitive process. 

Have you got a favourite piece in this exhibition?

I don’t know yet! I think I have to have space from the artworks as I have been working intensively on these for more than a year. I think when the show is hung up, it will be nice to see everything with fresh eyes. 

Is there a particular thought or feeling that you hope visitors to Light Upon Light will leave with once they’ve spent time in your exhibition?

I hope visitors enjoy the show, if they get a good, enjoyable experience from visiting, that is great for me.

I hope the show sheds some light on Islamic art and design culture, mathematics and how the same small shapes join together to make an almost infinite variety of patterns through colour and repetition. I like the idea of multiplicity, of how small differences in the world create all this beautiful diversity from very similar building blocks. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Work hard and don’t give up!

Is there anything else you would like readers of this blog post or visitors to the exhibition to know about you or your work?

This exhibition represents almost 3 years of thinking, of making work. Preparation for the exhibition had to slow down and stop due to the coronavirus pandemic. I am very grateful to the support from Rebecca Hill, Gallery Oldham and Arts Council England to finally see the exhibition go ahead. I can’t wait to see how it all looks in the gallery. 

Thanks for talking to us Zarah!

Find out more about our forthcoming exhibition programme by visiting our Exhibitions webpage.

Gallery Oldham