Art, for Ume Hussain, is Introspective and a Search for Answers

A few years after obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in art education and teaching, both elementary and high school, while maintaining an independent art studio, Ume Hussain realized she had hit a wall in both her art practice and her teaching. Looking back now, she sees that she was transitioning from doing two-dimensional works to sound and video work, but it was not nearly as clear back then. She was also having difficulty understanding her position vis-à-vis the art market.

In regards to teaching, she started to realize that she could not change the world by teaching art and she seriously started to wonder: What can art do? What can art contribute to the world? In time, she came to realize that art has a purpose, and is a way of helping others articulate who they are. Now Ume Hussain sees that art can be quite introspective and is a search through questions for answers. Art is one of the main ways to have people consider how they understand existence and relate to others, and it can be an incredibly transformative experience.

For Ume Hussain, art can allow an individual to reexamine preconceived ideas.

Ume Hussain was born in Lahore, Pakistan and moved to the United States when she was five years old. When she was close to eleven years old her family moved back to Pakistan, where they would remain for the next six years. Hussain says that the move back to Pakistan shaped her into the kind of artist that she is. “You know, when you grow up in an immigrant family in the United States, there is a lot of investment in that immigrant identity. But when I got to Pakistan, a lot of that investment was gone. I struggled somewhat to fit in, in Pakistan, trying to understand who I was now in Pakistani society. I wanted to understand what now was my identity.”

Part of the struggle with identity was an artistic struggle fueled by the usual teenage angst. “When I was in elementary school in the United States I realized that I wanted to be an artist. From that early on, I just knew. And there was a lot of encouragement to do this in my elementary school in the US, and there were weekly art classes. All of that went out the window in school in Pakistan. There was no value placed on creating art like there had been in the US, and that made my time there quite difficult.”

Nevertheless, Hussain completed high school in Pakistan, after which the family moved back to the United States where she would go on to obtain her undergraduate degree in Art Education from Virginia Commonwealth University. At the time that she was doing her undergraduate degree at VCU, she thought she was a painter, but she was always interested in more conceptual work. Video and sound were becoming increasingly important in her practice, but this only heightened her confusion. “The business of art and having to sell your work and the art industry and collectors was all quite confusing and a disillusion for me. I found the whole thing of networking hard. I was more interested in how art could make people think and I did not know how to attach a price tag to what I was doing. So, I left the art world for a long time.”

During that time Ume Hussain gave up her studio and focused her attention on teaching. Ironically though, it was her realization of the limits of what she could do as an art teacher, and the limitations of art itself, that brought her back to her art practice. She found that in explaining the limitations of art to her students, she started to find what, for her, was art’s true purpose. In so doing she could return to her practice with renewed vigor.

Hussain explains, “Art challenges both what you know of the world and what you know of yourself. As an artist, I would say that art pushes you to ask those extremely scary questions like: Who am I? Why am I? Why do I do what I do? Art asks of you to think through the ethics of the work that you make and propose to share with the world, and more and more I find that my ethics are becoming synonymous with my practice.”

The full scope of Ume Hussain’s preoccupations was on view during her thesis show last summer when she completed her MFA degree in studio art at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Hussain took over and transformed four rooms of a gallery on campus, in which visitors could have a truly immersive experience of sound and video and three-dimensional works. What Hussain’s 'Untitled' exhibition did was force the viewer over and over again to adjust to a sensory experience. The argument being made in the exhibition was that the stillness that oftentimes one is seeking in a noisy world, has to be rearticulated over and over again, and there is a constant oscillation between the internal and external worlds.

In practical terms, what this meant was that there were four interrelated installations that touched upon four intersecting themes: the idea of renewal; intangible labor; finding stillness and quiet within chaos; and the construction of something over and over again. One of the most compelling pieces in the exhibition was a net, which, like Penelope, the artist keeps working and reworking. Says the artist, “The net is an ongoing project that I have been working on for the past two years. It is made of monofilament and it is almost translucent. The net has grown and grown and sometimes it gets tangled. I have to cut parts of the net then mend it back again. For me the net represents everyday labor, that no one gets to see.”

But the net began to take on other meanings and associations as well. The net became symbolic of how one resolves certain issues in one’s life. How one deals with failures, for example, and when one decides to discard certain things out of one’s life. The net also started to become a way of making decisions in and about one’s life.

More and more these days the artist finds herself interested in interactive media as an art form, because this allows the viewer to activate the work in question. Several of the pieces in the thesis exhibition required a viewer’s presence to be activated — for a voice to get softer or louder, or lights to trip on or off — like they do in real life. Indeed, one could venture to say, it was 'real life' and how one navigates what the artist calls the “ocean of messages” that are often directed at the viewer, that was on view during her show. It was a remarkably mature and astute commentary, and one got the sense that Ume Hussain had been thinking about what she produced for a very long time.

“After being away from my practice for a while,” the artist told me, “I decided to go back to not only my practice, but to go back and get my MFA degree. I was not attached to any particular outcome when I set out to do my MFA degree, and this sort of detachment was liberating and freeing. It really allowed me to dive in. I could demand of myself the very things that I had been demanding of my students. Ultimately, for me, the MFA experience was transformative. I finally feel like I have an authentic voice.”

Until next time.

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