The Art of Diaspora

Sanaz Mazinani, in between

Market Street in San Francisco is a straight-shot drag that swoops down from the Castro and into the gaping maw of the bay, which is a serene way of describing what might otherwise be described as a sequence from a Jacques Tati movie shot in hell: a scene simultaneously bleak and triumphant, depressing and inspiring. On a map, Market Street looks orderly and deliberate — a well-intentioned if uninspired act of urban planning — but as anyone who has ever traveled it can attest, it’s easily one of the more overstimulating arteries of the city. Strolling down Market can feel like falling down a rabbit hole of social paradox and contradiction: A man, nose-tip pointed heavenward, stands on the corner barefoot and screaming, twisting violently, while down the block fresh-scrubbed twenty-somethings wheel vintage bicycles into Twitter HQ. Farther still, there’s a luxury mall with a spiraling escalator seemingly designed to induce nausea, and herds of tourists climb in and out of trolleys built in the 1920s.

“LGBTQ Rights” from the series “Celebrating Bay Area Activism”

All of which is to say, the chaotic beauty and devastation of Market Street make it the perfect place to showcase artist Sanaz Mazinani’s work, which the city has wisely chosen to do as part of its Art On Market Street program. Six large-format posters of Sanaz’s kaleidoscopic collages are currently displayed in bus kiosks between 8th Street and the Embarcadero. All six are grounded in the theme of Bay Area activism. From afar, the collages almost look like mandalas: They are symmetrical and bright, logical and organized. But up close, the world begins to spin. In one, the clarity borne from distance is rearranged into photographs from both the 1964 Occupation of Alcatraz and 2011’s Occupy movement. Another is composed of images from San Francisco’s 1989 Pride Parade and photographs of more recent Pride events in the city. On a recent weekend, I biked down to these posters and experienced the disorienting and nearly meditative effect of zooming in and zooming out on these images, which was only enhanced by the fact that I was doing so in the midst of everyone else’s Sunday bustle.

I spoke with Sanaz over the phone about her work and process, and one of the things she said stuck with me as I stood on Market Street in one of the art-adorned kiosks, trotting closer to the art, trotting back, certainly not waiting for the bus: “I like to have artwork that has multiple levels of entry for the viewer, and I feel like that happens here.” The notion of multiple entry points — approaching the work from the center and allowing it to blossom, or narrowing in from a panorama — strikes me as so generous and thoughtful. There is nothing coy or ironic about this sort of art — it is genuine and celebratory and thought-provoking, welcoming in a way that a lot of contemporary art seems deliberately not to be.

“Occupy” from the series “Celebrating Bay Area Activism”

Though Sanaz has historically shown her work in more traditional gallery spaces, she seems to take pleasure in having her work reach this broader audience — people who might not necessarily be attuned to the gallery scene, who are pleasantly disarmed by the presence of these multi-dimensional artworks and the narratives they encapsulate. That they are meant to be viewed during otherwise mundane moments of passage or waiting only enhances this, I imagine. “It surprises people,” she says of the large-format collages. “It becomes slightly like a ‘Where is Waldo’ experience — find every detail.”

Born in Tehran in 1978, Sanaz emigrated to Toronto when she was eleven years old, then moved to San Francisco in 2009 to pursue an MFA at Stanford. From the beginning, Sanaz’s art has always been tied to questions outside of itself — whether these questions are personal, political, or both. “Being an artist is not something that I ever dreamed toward,” she says, “but what I realized in time is that the complicated positions I’ve found myself in, or the questions that I had — that I had no answers for — were more satisfying for me to explore through visual art.”

From “Room for Disruption” (2011)

Photography in particular caught her attention, largely due to its capacity to facilitate time-travel. “There are times and eras that I’ll never know,” she says, “but photography has the ability to transport you temporally and spatially — this has always been really fascinating for me.” This documentary impulse was one Sanaz felt drawn to apply to her own life, in some part to counter the narratives of her various identities set forth by the media and fixed in the cultural consciousness of her two homes. “As a kid who was from Iran, growing up in Canada and America, I felt that the representation of my own culture and background was very one-sided,” she says. “I wanted to use photography to express what I saw and experienced, and to challenge the status quo — show an alternative perspective. I was roped into photography for its ability to show you something you aren’t able to see otherwise, and also its limitations: What is left out of the photograph, what is happening in its periphery, what the biases of the photographer leave out that no-one will ever know about.”

“Discussion, Sohaanak” from “Iran Revisited”

Sanaz speaks Farsi fluently but says that her newer North American roots are immediately detected in conversation. When visiting Iran, she is identified as an outsider by dint of her English accent; when she is in the United States, she is identified by many as being Iranian. This experience, a critical and not uncommon component of diaspora, is something Sanaz calls “in-betweenness.” Yet, she sees it as something that can be used to her advantage as an artist. “From that point of view, I can see things perhaps a bit more clearly,” she says. “When you’re invested in something, really inside it, you don’t have that sort of distance.”

The political is deeply woven into Sanaz’s work, something she attributes in part to the Occupy movement, and to some degree the Arab Spring as well. That said, making political work in San Francisco is a radically different practice than making political work in Iran. Sanaz speaks glowingly of underground galleries and exhibitions being shown in lush private libraries and apartments — and they do sound magical — but creating and showcasing political art in Iran does seem slightly perilous.

“A Family Portrait, Noor” from “Iran, Revisited”

“In a place like Iran, there’s censorship always — in Tehran, exhibitions don’t last more than two weeks. You only want people on your guest list to come, because if you have nudity or some kind of political message in your artwork, the whole gallery could get shut down,” Sanaz says. “I think that work in Iran is quite different — I would definitely think that when, as artists, if you feel that you’re being censored or limited in some way, you end up pushing harder. You end up thinking about how to express your ideas without going to jail. With those limitations it’s more sincere, a dedication comes out of it, and the artwork becomes more interesting. In Iran, we don’t really have space for Sunday painters.” Of course, making political art in Iran seems almost like an inevitability, in part because of the dynamic Sanaz describes — the government pushes, so art pushes back — and in part because it’s simply contextual.

When in Iran and in the United States, Sanaz says she is constantly mediating between two cultures. If not necessarily translating — that seems perhaps like an oversimplification — Sanaz says she finds herself in the position of communicating between two cultures. When I ask whether she feels compelled to be a spokesperson for either place, her explanation is a bit more nuanced: “I don’t feel like it’s my personal responsibility in any way, though I do enjoy sharing so someone can better understand. I would assume that a lot of artists, including myself, take this role of being interpreters — the artwork becomes a layer through which things can be thought through.”

Sanaz’s previous projects illustrate a versatility across mediums and topics, though the political has imbued her work in recent years. “Iran Revisited” is a collection of photographs depicting everyday life in Tehran, images that suggest a mundanity of life in Iran not often represented in the American media. Other series, such as “Code” and “A Study in the Vertical” are far more abstract and architectural, nearly mathematical in their construction. It is not difficult to link the patterns and structures of Sanaz’s collages to this earlier work — all reveal a proclivity for precision, for repetition that is somehow both soothing and destabilizing.

At current, Sanaz is working on a series of photographs that are mounted on 3-D surfaces designed to jut out of the wall. When a viewer stands in front of the work, their peripheral vision is also blocked, so turning away from the images is impossible without closing one’s eyes against them. The photographs in these new pieces are images of soldiers who lost their lives during battle in Afghanistan or Iraq, which Sanaz found on the Department of Defense website. They are placed alongside images of flag-draped coffins — an icon that Sanaz believes “hasn’t been part of the American consciousness, or images of wounded soldiers… these are not violent images at all, but they are images of loss. I’m hoping for an awareness of the dynamics of the politics going on around us, that we can’t be a part of, really.” By creating an environment designed for the photographs, the viewer is quite literally unable to turn away.

Ultimately, Sanaz says she is most content making art that engenders deeper understanding between cultures or viewpoints, which makes sense given the fluidity with which she herself moves from country to country, culture to culture. “I would say that I make artwork so that for a tiny moment, when the viewer stands in front of my art, I am lucky enough to have them think about these same subjects and issues that I am thinking and dreaming about every day of my life,” she says. “For just that one moment, if someone thinks about it, or has a conversation about war and its meaning — then I am happy.”

“War Equipped”