Words by Carlos Suarez De Jesus
Asif Farooq stooped over a metal sink in a Jackson, Mississippi Huddle House restaurant. Feverishly scrubbing away at the mountain of pots and dishes in front of him, he tried to wash away his doubts about whether he’d finally found a way to kill his 20-year heroin addiction.
It was 2010, and Farooq was in the final stages of a seven-month stint at the nearby Caduceus Out-Patient Addiction Center (or COPAC), a rural 23-acre facility for hard-core addicts. Farooq had been in similar spots before, and every time, his addiction had returned. But this time, the thought of a relapse made him angry.
“The patients at COPAC all believed I was the first one who was going to start using. It angered me. I thought the most rebellious thing I could do was not get high,” the 34 year-old artist says today.
The Kendall native found one way to make that rehab stint different. To cope with the tedium of group therapy sessions, the stifling hours alone, and the homesickness, he’d begun making eerily realistic revolvers and pistols out of cardboard. He had to fight the center’s bosses to get the materials he needed.
“Like any good junkie, I had a list of demands that included being allowed to use razor blades or the X-Acto knives and glue I use to make my guns,” he says. “Luckily, they accepted and allowed me to work on my art in my free time.”
He gave the guns as gifts to fellow patients, but when he returned to Miami in December 2011, the pieces opened new doors for him in the fine art world. Miami’s Primary Projects caught onto the AK-47s and AR-style assault rifles carefully sculpted from used Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal boxes and other trash and gave him a breakout show during Art Basel 2012.
Now, as 2014 begins, Farooq is one of Miami’s most inspiring art tales — a talent with a unique vision that promises to make bigger waves this year with everything from a full-scale fighter jet made from cardboard to plans to transform Primary’s full space into a twisted turn-of-the-century hunting milieu.
“People have no idea how talented Asif is,” says Primary Projects’ co-founder and artist Typoe, who, along with his partner BooksIIII Bischof, is planning exhibits with Farooq. “He is unlike any other artist I have ever known. His mastery of his craft — everything from glass blowing to welding and engineering — obsession with precision, and enthusiasm for his work are mind-blowing.”
Farooq was born at Baptist Hospital and grew up in a quiet Kendall suburb in a middle-class home with his mother and father, who migrated here from Pakistan and Afghanistan. His father, Dr. Humayoun Farooq, was a civil engineer who worked for Miami-Dade County before starting his own business in the late ’70s. Farzana, his mother, was a homemaker who later took over the family engineering firm when Farooq’s father died of cancer five years ago.
Farooq says his parents placed a high value on education. “My father used to sit with me after school for several hours working on math and science problems after I finished my regular homework.”
Farooq’s siblings all went on to become professionals, but the insatiably curious Asif always felt like an outsider. “I was that skinny brown kid with the bifocals that teachers lumped with the three Korean girls,” he says.
In fourth grade at South Dade’s Gateway Baptist Elementary, Farooq found the artistic streak that would become his calling. “Instead of doing my assignment, I was drawing a picture of a Lamborghini Countach when the girls next to me and even some boys who never paid me attention started huddling to see my picture.”
Not long after that transformative moment, the drug problems that would torment Farooq throughout his artistic career surfaced. He was kicked out of Glades Middle School for alleged drug abuse. Farooq denies he was using then but says he soon began taking drugs to spite the authorities who’d expelled him. By the time he was a freshman at South Miami Senior High, drugs were a regular part of his life.
“I constantly fell asleep, and threw up on a girl in my math class,” he recalls. “Once I got into the powders — cocaine and heroin — that’s when I dropped out of school and things became different.”
Even as his school life was falling apart, Farooq’s talent was still evident. At 15, he showed up at the Metal Man Scrap Yard near the Miami River to try his hand at sculpture. “It was run by a former Army staff sergeant… who encouraged me to weld bits of metal together as long as I took it all apart when I finished,” Farooq recalls.
Farooq, who’d earned a GED after leaving high school, enrolled at Miami Dade College and later attended the Art Institute of Chicago. But he was booted from the school for forging an ID. “I never asked why it happened, and they never told me, and that was that,” Farooq says. “I was into a lot of bad shit back then.”
Back home in Miami in his early 20s, unemployed and with few prospects, Farooq spent close to a decade struggling with addiction, bouncing in and out of jail and rehab programs and building and repairing synthesizer keyboards for local musicians.
In the spring of 2009, he found himself at South Miami Hospital with a heart infection caused by a dirty needle. Laid up with a potentially fatal condition, Farooq began keeping a diary in which he scribbled plans for building an airplane. After he was released from the hospital, he moved to Mississippi to enroll in the rehab program and soon began making the cardboard weapons that would become his trademark.
When he returned from Mississippi, he contacted Miami artist Typoe, one of the founders of Primary Projects, who was bowled over by Farooq’s sculptures and got him into a group show called “Champion.” At the exhibit, Farooq displayed a full-scale hand-crafted cardboard rendition of a 1930s DShK Soviet heavy machine gun. Farooq titled the imposing work Countach to honor what he recalls his genesis moment.
“It’s a Piedmontese Italian slang expression that roughly translates to ‘oh shit,'” the artist says. “As the story goes, workers at the Milan auto show uttered this expression upon first seeing the Lamborghini that would eventually go by that name. It’s the same car I drew up in… class that day, and it’s what I named the DShK sculpture all those years later because everyone would say ‘oh shit’ when they saw it.”
The show landed Farooq a spot during Art Basel 2012 with Primary Projects, where his exhibit “Asif’s Guns” was a pop-up store in Wynwood featuring 300 firearms, ranging from revolvers to rifles, crafted with uncanny precision. The display took 7,000 hours of labor, with Farooq’s friends and family chipping in while he toiled away in his mother’s garage. His fake guns flew off the shelves, with revolvers commanding $300 and rifles $2,000, each priced the same as the real McCoy, as 40,000 visitors elbowed through the doors.
Today, Farooq is working on several large-scale projects for Primary, including “War Room.” Due to be finished this summer, the exhibit will turn the gallery into a Napoleonic-era country gentleman’s estate, replete with musket rifles, dueling pistols, and other weapons of the age.
In his modest Kendall studio, Farooq is pursuing his biggest dream. He’s quietly building a full-scale Polish MiG-21 fighter jet employing 200,000 parts, including a cockpit that spectators can climb into and retractable landing gear. He expects his supersonic opus to debut in early 2015.
“Anything worth having is worth working hard for,” Farooq says. “One thing I learned at COPAC and in the years after is restraint. [In 2013] I could have made more money with my art than I have ever earned, but I’m glad my gallery directors are intelligent enough to allow me to develop and have been so supportive of the work.”
Farooq has been inundated with invitations to show his work outside Miami and was asked to lecture on art at the University of Arkansas next spring. All it takes are the memories of Mississippi to remind him that his biggest goal is one that begins every morning, though.
“Right now my main focus is building my airplane,” the artist says. “But you can say my real dream is to die clean.”