Exploring power structures and visual forms of state control, Sanaz Mazinani reimagines contemporary media imagery to activate critical reflection. At the Aga Khan Museum, a new site-specific installation by the multidisciplinary artist, who is based in San Francisco and Toronto, evokes past and present methods of recording and distributing knowledge to explore the aesthetics and politics of war. Mazinani’s creative approach to politicized imagery serves to intensify its seductive power, inviting a visceral engagement with the narratives of war that pushes against indifference. As part of an artistic practice that weaves histories together to deepen understandings of cultural disparities and the collective concerns that unite individuals, Not Elsewhere (2019) provides a haven for discussions about the realties of contemporary warfare, which are often under-represented in Western media.

Suspended from the lofty ceiling in the museum’s atrium, three fabric scrolls undulate across the space and animate the light-filled passage. Echoing the patterns cast from the museum’s courtyard windows, Mazinani’s scrolls simultaneously capture the fleeting geometry as shadows travel, guided by the sun, across the building. Their elaborate patterns are rendered using popular media images of tactical and remotely piloted warplanes, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor—one of the most lethal combat aircrafts on the planet—which the artist has replicated and mirrored using digital methods. Her compositions, derived from Islamic ornamentation, appear as abstract forms from a distance, and reveal the Western machinery of war when viewed up close.

Through the narratives embedded in these printed scrolls, Mazinani, who was born in Iran, highlights the expressive possibilities of visual language. In most ancient civilizations, the scroll was the original format for longer recorded text; similarly, in present-day culture, the scroll is the extended systemic movement of information across a computer screen. Using the linear structure of this historical means of communication, and the electronic system of contemporary digital interaction, she activates multiple readings of her work and comments on how conflicting realities are constructed and imagined. While these photographic images of attack aircrafts can evoke the devastating causes and consequences of combat, the depictions of regimented plane formations and billowing condensation trails also conjure memories of aerobatic air shows that celebrate military and technological prowess. These contrary readings underscore the subtle yet pervasive militarization of culture through the pretense of entertainment—which is amplified by the proliferation of such imagery in film, television, and gaming.

The warplane can be understood as a symbol of either glory or terror; it is both sublime and destructive. Mazinani’s fluctuating kaleidoscopic storyline is conveyed through complex pattern and vivid colour, which transitions across the scrolls’ breadth as hues shift from light to dark and reveal the parallel realities of these skyscapes, through the knowledge systems that describe them.