'Allow Me to Sow and See the Garden I Become' at Patel Brown Gallery, 2023

Foreword by Manel Benchabane (Translated by Jo-Anne Balcaen)

The exhibition ran from Aug 31 - Oct 01, 2023
Images of works included in this exhibition can be seen here and here.

Sitting quietly at his computer, Shaheer Zazai types a series of characters in a Word document. Little by little, the page fills and the image of a flower slowly emerges. Each character is important in its own way and is part of a harmonious and complex equation. Each indentation, each punctuation mark is methodically chosen, then highlighted in a carefully selected colour. The image is both controlled and improvised. And although the artist lets his intuition guide him, the flower he is drawing is also calculated to some degree.

As an Afghan-Canadian artist, Shaheer Zazai explores how culture and identity are constructed. In Allow me to Sow and See the Garden I Become, Zazai presents a new body of work in which he continues to reflect on how his country of origin is perceived. Afghanistan has long been associated with ongoing war and conflict, to the exclusion of all other possible facets of its culture. By focusing on the power of flowers and gardens, Zazai tries to activate the hope of transformation while allowing his studio to become a site for meditation and reparation.

Shaheer Zazai’s digital creative process was first inspired by the fabrication of traditional Afghan rugs. His version involves translating hand-knotted threads on a loom into typed characters. The compositions often reflect gardens motifs: a central element, corridors, borders, and ponds reference Afghanistan’s strong gardening tradition. After discovering the book War Gardens, in which reporter Lalage Snow looks at gardening practices in war-torn areas, Zazai delved further into the therapeutic powers of nature and its ineluctable link to resilience and survival. With his recent body of work, he illustrates a precious moment in the life of a plant: its blooming. By representing one or more flowers in each piece, Shaheer Zazai gradually cultivates his own colourful, living, flowering garden. Using the diagrams he draws in his Word document, textile works are then produced on a Jacquard loom, marking the long-standing relationship between computer language and the binary codes behind all weaving patterns.

Zazai’s language also includes an elegant font called “Bodoni Ornaments.” Featured in this exhibition is a series of small-format works presented in a grid, in which each element foregrounds an ornamental character that resembles a stylized flower. As metaphors for actual seeds, these remind us of the germination process that leads to the flowering stage. Zazai thus gives the typographic sign a central space in his work, and as his creative medium it forms the seed of his digital language.

Allow me to Sow and See the Garden I Become is a call for hope, the hope to give cultural identity the chance to show another side of itself. Planting a seed and providing the right conditions for its growth definitively grounds this gesture in the present and is an investment in the future. Shaheer Zazai’s garden offers a pause. It’s a space of transformation and becoming. 

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The floral arrangements presented as part of the exhibition were created by Lydie Bochatay of Atelier Bochatay in response to the artist’s work.

Lydie Bochatay is a florist who lives and works in Upton, Montérégie (Québec). After more than ten years working and taking part in large-scale projects in the visual arts and design milieu, she returned to an artistic practice in 2022 with the founding of Atelier Bochatay. This floristry project, which she annexes to her own garden, is a studio in constant transformation, playing with the boundary between art and floristry and evolving from one proposal to the next.

Manel Benchabane is a curator of contemporary art, a writer, and the manager of exhibitions and public programs at the Stewart Hall Art Gallery. Her curated projects include Entre les lignes—Writing Mountains (2023), Petites baleines à dents— Cynthia Girard-Renard (2022), and La mouvance des sons (2021). She is interested in issues that concern nature and the environment, diversity and cultural issues, heritage, and feminism. She regularly contributes to different contemporary art publications and has served on many committees and juries. 

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