'A Study in Human Error' at Patel Brown Gallery, 2020

Foreword by Clara Puton, Art Administrator and artist

The exhibition ran from July 24 - Sept 26, 2020
You can see images of the work here.

“Human error refers to something that has been done that was ‘not intended by the actor; not desired by a set of rules or an external observer; or that led the task or system outside its acceptable limits.’”

Senders, J.W. and Moray, N.P. (1991)
Human Error: Cause, Prediction, and Reduction.

A Study in Human Error by Shaheer Zazai. The exhibition is comprised of two distinct bodies of works, one of digital prints, the other of paintings. The digital works revolve around imagery based on traditional Afghan carpets that are created in Microsoft Word. To create them, Zazai employs a method in which a limited colour palette and final dimensions are determined before any weaving begins. Highlighter and punctuation function as his warp and weft, producing designs in which a density of colour, movement, and depth extends even to gaps of white that, while appearing like windows onto the blank page, are white text on white ground. The carpets can be described as hand-woven, keystroke by keystroke, knot by knot, that begin with a border at the top left corner and unfold through a fluid design process. One woven shape informs the next, reinforcing Zazai’s dedication to creating the carpets with individual actions, never copy and paste. This method encourages Zazai’s uncontrolled approach and, by choosing a labour-intensive approach in his version of textile production, also connects his digital carpets to the craft of hand-woven rugs.

Formerly, Zazai’s digital works had to achieve an exact symmetry, in his words, “a control of exact balance” that was determined by the precise calculation of Microsoft Word’s character count. This rule superseded those of palette and size, leading the artist to edit and sometimes completely erase a carpet that was not perfectly balanced. The digital works presented in A Study in Human Error are free from such control, a reflection of Zazai’s recent explorations into why he has imposed such rules and limits onto himself as well as his artistic practice. Zazai describes the experience of living in and fleeing from Afghanistan in 1992, first to Pakistan for 13 years with many internal moves, and then to Canada, as leading a life of “constant changes where there is no room for error.” Zazai now recognizes that the logical and analytical mindset he first adopted as a child functioned as a protective foil from fear and the experience of diaspora, a foil he has begun unraveling in his carpets, his paintings, and his psyche.

Similar to Zazai’s rejection of exact balance in his digital works is his rejection of an academic approach to painting. A previously controlled method has given way to an uninhibited application of his first brushstrokes that, to Zazai, feel honest and foster an internal investigation into vulnerability, comfort, and fear. Zazai often paints in a single session, encouraging him to trust emotional curiosity and creative direction as it develops and becomes visible. Whereas earlier paintings may have obscured a figure within a blurred landscape or compositional chaos, for example, Zazai’s recent paintings and accompanying studies have brought them to the fore. Subjects, like the figure in The Fear and Fraught (2020), now enact and express emotional responses to themes such as fear, patriarchy, and cultural dislocation. Other paintings by Zazai like An Ode to Reoccurrence (2020) and Pry (2019) depict landscapes that feel vulnerable and in flux, rendered in loose brushstrokes, that speak to Zazai’s explorations of and challenges in navigating life in a continuous state of diaspora.

The works in A Study in Human Error are exactly that. In both bodies of work Zazai is visibly unlearning the controls formerly placed upon his work: embracing unintended brushstrokes and digital knots; rejecting the rules of exact balance and the rules of academic painting; and recognizing the experience of diaspora as one that continually pushes the notion of a fixed identity beyond its limits. Zazai’s former suppression of human error is now replaced by a therapeutic and meditative exploration of them, culminating in A Study in Human Error.

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