If you’ve strolled through the UTM campus recently, you may have come across the Blackwood Gallery’s latest lightbox installment: Burning Glass, Reading Stone. On January 11, the gallery debuted the series’ fourth installment—Is, but will be—which showcases the artwork of Shaheer Zazai, a Toronto-based Afghan-Canadian artist who specializes in painting and digital media. 

Across campus, there are four related lightbox installations of Zazai’s art, each baring slightly unique visual patterns to symbolize the different perspectives of diasporic experiences. Upon first glance, the images appear as disrupted patterns reminiscent of a cracked computer screen, entrancing passersby who catch a peek. 

“The work itself changed form when going from one lightbox to the other and this was as a response to the exhibition series’ title Burning Glass, Reading Stone, which refers to a lens,” says Zazai. “For my work I approached each piece as though they were being viewed through a different lens.” 

Despite subtle differences in perspective, each piece is alluring and mysterious, incorporating tiny repetitive red, blue, yellow, green, and purple fragments that, viewed together, resemble the patterns of traditional Afghan carpet weaving. Every knot of this abstracted carpet is represented by a typed character, with varying colour relations, font size, characters used.

Zazai distorts our perception through information overload and glitch imagery, which creates a middle ground between a computer screen and print, mirroring the in-between emotional states that many immigrants face in diaspora.

As Zazai says in an interview with The Medium, “Is, but will be comes from the core focus of my practice—an exploration into understanding my cultural identity. Just like these art pieces, our identities in one moment ‘Is, but will be’ a different self with the constantly changing environments while in diaspora.”

Zazai’s art isn’t just unique in its presentation, but also in its methodology. His creative process draws on the methods of carpet manufacturing and computer programming. And, what may surprise most people, Zazai creates his art using the same software students use to write their essays.

The artist, whose previous works have been covered by CBC Arts, approached the Blackwood Gallery exhibition as a challenge. “Microsoft Word as a medium came about purely from a self-imposed challenge,” says Zazai. 

Zazai didn’t intend to make art or create anything in particular. Instead, he began with the simple but monotonous task of typing over 2000 dots and spaces. “The challenge was to not stop.” Eventually, Zazai worked in numbers and more complex character repetitions, until he started creating patterns reminiscent of textile designs.

“My works are generally a result of improvisation while bound by set parameters. Is, but will be emerged in response to the exhibition’s parameters, where the numbers four, six, and nine represent the four 6×9-foot lightboxes located across campus.” 

Is, but will be, is a fascinating journey from East to West, from computer screen to lightbox. The installations will be on display until February 7. For more information on Zazai, his background and his other work, and for digital displays of his current lightbox, visit the Blackwood Gallery website.

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