"Will you mention my mom?" asks the 6-foot-and-1-inch tall Asif Farooq with a broad smile. He wears a black baseball cap on the back of his head, the lip pointing skyward at an angle, adding even more height to his massive build. Farooq, 33, exudes a playful energy, which belies his intimidating frame, not to mention word "Crazy" tattooed in cursive on the right side of his neck. It's no wonder when he walks down the stairs in the Design District building housing Primary Projects' gallery space, carrying a scale-sized model Tommy Gun made of thick cardboard, that he startles a woman walking around a corner. Carrying a cup of coffee and a notebook, she freezes in her tracks for a second. In a sincere, humble voice, Farooq says, "Excuse me, ma'am" and walks on, hand on the trigger of the old-time submachine gun made famous by Great Depression-era gangsters.
Sitting crossed legged on the roof parking lot of the building one weekday afternoon, the Thompson on one side and fiddling with parts of a model of a Walther PPK, Farooq talks about his art background. He credits his mother for his first art lessons, who, though she most likely did not teach him how to design cardboard scale models of weapons, is part of a small team he has recruited to produce a stockpile of 300 guns ahead of a unique solo show as part of Art Basel Miami Beach 2012, just a few weeks away. "My mom does a little gluing," he says with a big laugh, covering his mouth with both hands before bending over and clapping them together, still laughing. "Yeah, she, um ... My mother's an artist, and she's what inspires me," he adds sincerely.
Farooq's formal schooling began with a vision to become a lawyer, studying political science and English at Florida International University. But, he says, he "wasn't happy with people who were going to grow up to be lawyers," and it was off to the Art Institute of Chicago, thanks to the encouragement of Elizabeth Hall, a Visual Arts professor at FIU.
But honing his craft happened elsewhere. While spending 10 years unemployed, and one building and repairing synthesizer keyboards, he struggled with drugs and the law. "When you're locked up and confined somewhere--and this is basically the story of my life--you kind of make stuff out of whatever's available, and paper's always available, wherever you go, right?"
He hesitates a bit to talk about his drug past, which included heroin (he's several years clean now). But he says he recognizes the opportunity to find distraction in his craft, and away from drugs, behind various locked doors. "Sometimes rehab, sometimes jail, sometimes mental hospital or something. You know... I ...," he pauses. "Sometimes that's what I would do, I would make little drawings, and it would always be either a gun or an airplane. These are the things I really like. I really like airplanes, and the guns are sort of fun to tote around and pull out on people."
It was around 2007 that he began layering and cutting cardboard, constructing three-dimensional, scale models of guns. Farooq quickly understood the impression these model guns had upon first glance, which included models as large as AK-47s, an assault weapon not unfamiliar on Miami's streets. He even admits to playing with one of the rifles in one of the worst places you might consider playing with them: a convenience store. "I used to like to run into gas stations with them, so I would be on camera with them ... It's funny, you get older and you realize some of the stuff you did when you were younger was not so responsible and very reckless or just not a bright idea at all."
The guns are made out of meticulously cut pieces of discarded cardboard and then glued together. The brown, raw color of the "media" and the ridges of corrugated material give it away only on closer inspection. But cursory glances and their to-scale size give a whole other impression. Chris Oh, Director of Operations at Primary Projects, notes "the false sense of power" in handling these art pieces. The impression is primal, and without thinking, if one of these "guns" are handed to you, you go for the handle and trigger, instinctively, holding it as you would a gun.
There are feats of engineering going on with these pieces, which include removable and moveable parts. "I grew up from an engineering background," notes Farooq. "My father was an engineer, so it's almost a synthesis of those two people. My mother who has an eye for beauty and my father who had an eye for engineering detail ... That's a sort of trite combination, but it really is the environment that I grew up in."
Oh said he and his partner at Primary Projects, the artist Typoe, met Farooq through a mutual friend and figured a way to push him into displaying his art in a unique way without ending up on surveillance video, or worse. "We got to meet Asif and saw how passionate he was about different types of firepower and how knowledgeable he was about different types of firearms, and each model and so on. We saw this potential. We saw the early stages of developing this concept and to go further with this concept and push Asif to create something more intricate, push farther, push the envelope and really develop what he was working on as a concept."
That idea has led to the opening of a pop-up gunshop just in time for Art Basel. "We want to imitate," Oh says, "as true as possible, the experience of going into any gun store around the country ... a lot of them have similar aesthetics, similar design as far as what they carry, so in order to familiarize the public and have that connection we wanted to create a pop-up art installation that mimicked the experience of a real gun store."
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Though just one of countless exhibits timed to correspond with Art Basel Miami Beach, Farooq remains grounded to his notion of giving back to his friends, a practice he once did with his model guns. The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of William Stuart Watkins, a friend of Farooq's who died of a drug overdose. "He really loved guns and we loved guns together," Farooq says of his friend.
"Asif's Guns" opens publicly December 4 - 9, 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. (opening Reception: Saturday, December 8, 6 p.m. - 12 a.m) at Primary Projects Pop-Up Space, 167 NW 25th St., Miami. Visit primaryprojectspace.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.