Asif Farooq leans over the after-burning turbine engine inside the Cold War-era combat jet he's building in his Doral studio and gives the roller-bearing assemblage a spin.
"There's roughly about a hundred synchronized moving parts," Farooq says as the assembly spools up in a whispering whir. "The parts include hubs, pins, flanges, and guides. The rollers themselves are hand-machined to 1/72 of an inch."
About those parts: They're all made of paper and glue. Those are the only building blocks the 36-year-old artist is using to create a nearly exact replica of a Russian supersonic fighter jet. When his feat of engineering is completed, Farooq's two-ton paper sculpture of the delta-winged MiG-21 will include upward of 250,000 parts and be a fully representational model of the aircraft, which made its debut in 1956 at Moscow's Tushino Airfield.
"Why am I doing this? Redemption," Farooq intones peacefully before peering over his dark aviator sunglasses for a moment's pause. "This is my church."
For the past three years, Farooq's sweltering workshop located directly behind the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center and not far from Miami International Airport has been the artist's cathedral to improbable dreams.
Here, Farooq can muse about historical figures such as Elmer of Malmesbury, an 11th-century Benedictine monk who — inspired by the Greek fable of Daedalus — used wax and feathers to make wings. Elmer fixed those wings to his arms and feet before launching himself from an abbey tower, breaking both legs and ending up lame.
"I've always been fascinated by stories like Elmer's," Farooq says, "and dreamt of flying since I was a kid."
The son of Pakistani immigrants, Farooq was born at Baptist Hospital and grew up in a quiet suburban Kendall neighborhood. His mother, Farzana, was a homemaker who loved painting landscapes and gave Asif a book of Michelangelo's preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel when he was 5. He soon began making his own drawings inspired by the Renaissance master's works.
He also discovered a lifelong passion for building and taking things apart from his father, Dr. Humayoun Farooq, who worked as a civil engineer for Miami-Dade County.
But by the time the ardently inquisitive youngster found himself enrolled at South Dade's Gateway Baptist Elementary, he suffered the brunt of school jokers who would tease him about his family's Islamic traditions.
"They would rag on me about [eating] goat at Christmas and stuff," recollects Farooq, who seemed an exotic outsider to schoolmates accustomed to dining on turkey or Noche Buena lechón.
All of that changed in the fourth grade, when he impressed his classmates by drawing a remarkably detailed picture of a Lamborghini. His teachers wondered if they had a child prodigy on their hands. At home, when he wasn't drawing, Farooq would spend hours at his father's drafting table tinkering with a compass, a slide rule, or other engineering tools.
After dropping out of high school, Farooq went on to earn a GED before attending Miami Dade College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Florida International University. But the artist's existence radically changed in 2009 when his father died. A few months later, he found himself clinging to life at South Miami Hospital after suffering a heart infection and pulmonary embolism.
"I made a foxhole prayer to the universe back then that I would one day build my MiG-21 if I could stay alive," Farooq says.
After recovering, he stumbled into his unique art style: making eerily realistic revolvers and rifles out of cardboard. The world discovered Farooq's style in 2012, when more than 40,000 visitors flocked to his Art Basel gun-shop pop-up, paying up to $2,000 a pop for the faux weapons.
But Farooq never forgot the ephemeral prayer he'd made in the hospital. The next year, he used all of the cash he'd made from his weapons sales to rent a warehouse and begin his dream project. It hasn't been cheap.
"I've spent my life savings, tens of thousands of dollars," Farooq says, "mostly from the proceeds from selling my guns, as well as donations from supporters and friends."
Farooq calls his MiG-21 — which is scaled at 102 percent to allow the six-foot-two artist room to sit in the cockpit — a "ghost ship and more a drawing than a sculpture." But in many ways, it's as much a self-portrait of the artist as it is a model of the Soviet aircraft.
"I see Asif's project as a triumph over existence and his way of navigating the daily things that reflect on all we confront as human beings," says Nick Cindric, who represents Farooq.
Cindric has spent the past 30 years as an art dealer in Santa Fe, Boca Raton, and Miami and is one of the cofounders of the Wynwood Arts District. He calls Farooq's project the single most important artwork to come out of South Florida in the past decade.
"This is what the best contemporary artwork should be and do," Cindric says. "It should take you out of your comfort zone, question your belief system, and challenge your understanding of what the world is."
On a recent Saturday morning, Farooq settles his tall, 190-pound frame into a weatherbeaten leather recliner behind a massive wooden desk, exposing his heavily tattooed arms. A taxidermied African hyena rests on a shelf above his head. A fully functioning Russian pilot's helmet and parts of a KM-1M ejection seat, sundry cockpit avionics, the radar-ranging gun sights and switches for the master electrical systems are scattered on adjacent shelves, buried among a set of chattering teeth, a prank squirt mustard bottle, and other gag items for comic relief.
When Farooq ducks out for a bathroom break, his shop foreman, Angel Osorio, grabs a bullhorn and hits a police siren button on it, driving the screaming artist out of the latrine.
"We try to keep a fun working environment here," Farooq laughs. "Angel is the big-picture guy. He looks at the broad strokes of the project and approaches it all very methodically."
Farooq's fabrication crew also includes Erica Mohan, who is his project production superintendent, and Ann Kathleen Strain, who designs all of the team's vintage Soviet-era inspired uniforms by hand.
As far as they know, this will be the first full-scale paper model ever made of the MiG-21, which has been flown by the air forces of more than 60 countries on four continents and is the most-produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history.
"All of the parts work — meaning that the switches toggle, the landing gear extends and retracts, and the flying surfaces articulate. No shortcut has been taken in the production and design of this project. Both inside and out, it is the genuine article," he informs.
Farooq and his crew have used more than 200 gallons of glue and upward of 4,000 pounds of paper, most of which they made onsite themselves. They also had to make their own tools and equipment. Everything — from the thousands of feet of hydraulic lines to the electrical cables to the oil and gas cables — has been hand-tooled.
When finished, Farooq's MiG-21 will measure 52 feet long by 28.5 feet wide by 18.5 feet tall and will be able to seat the lanky artist in the cockpit. The paper plane's landing gear retracts, its radar glides backward and forward within the fuselage, and the wheel wells open and close.
"The MiG-21 has fought in every major conflict of the Cold War and up to this day," Farooq mentions. "Twenty-eight countries in the world still fly them. ISIS flies them. Cuba even has 191 of the jets parked on their tarmacs 90 miles from the U.S."
Farooq even has a military veteran on hand, who says the artist's commitment to accuracy boggles the mind. Allen Henson, a photographer documenting the project, served six years in the Army Infantry and did two yearlong tours in Iraq. Henson is familiar with the MiG-21 firsthand.
"I don't know how Asif has accomplished what he has," Henson says. "His level of research and development, attention to detail, and execution — all the working mechanisms are insane. The control panels in the cockpit are even stamped with the Cyrillic alphabet."
Farooq plans to finish the plane in time for this year's Art Basel festivities in December, but he's not sure where he'll show the artwork just yet. Someday, though, he says he hopes to see his MiG-21 placed in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The artist has even bigger ambitions down the road. For his followup project, he plans to launch a geosynchronous microsatellite, which will have an iPod playing Metallica's Kill 'Em All on loop over Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The plan is to provoke a revolt among the citizenry of the hermit kingdom against their nuclear-addled leader, Kim Jong-un.
"Hey, you have to use your superpowers for good," Farooq cracks.
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