Deep in the industrial four-corners of Brownsville, Doral, Allapatah and Hialeah, a warehouse is transformed into an art studio, hangar, and museum of Soviet curiosities. Inside, Miami-born artist Asif Farooq, 37, sands down a compressed piece of cardboard, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Handing me the small, jewel-like object, Farooq gabs on about the marvels of Soviet aeronautics.
Looming over us is a two-ton replica of a delta-winged MiG-21—a Soviet supersonic jetfighter plane. This project has consumed Farooq for the last five years, but it was an idea he lived with for much longer. He has built the airplane from rare Russian blueprints, translating every mechanical bit into a cardboard replica, some parts even modeled by eye. Yes, cardboard. In the middle of South Florida, where one king tide too many will wash it all away like forgettable origami.
Balalaika is the name of the sculpture, borrowed from a nickname soviet pilots give the MiG-21 because of its resemblance to a Russian folk instrument when viewed from above. Reproduced down to the minutiae of screw and wash, Farooq’s airplane will consist of up to 250,000 parts when complete. The one difference is that Farooq’s model is stretched a bit over scale so that he can sit in the cockpit. (He is a tall man.)
A son of Pakistani immigrants, growing up during the televised tail-end of the Cold War, it’s no question how deeply geopolitics informs his imagination. But the MiG-21 is the latest and most comprehensive application of Asif’s lifelong pursuit of working symbols of destruction into symbols of transformation. Like the cardboard guns for which Farooq first gained attention in the art world, the raw material stops the destructive quality of the object represented from having the last word. With cardboard discard, Farooq changes our perception of an “enemy” war-machine into a boyish feat of engineering. Like his cereal box M-16s, he continues to transfigure the trash we make and the bad we do each other into wonderworks.
Farooq time and again breaches the shock value of most contemporary art and returns us to classical awe. Like gunmanship, Balalaika stands on the time-honored skills of artisans and engineers. While Balalaika can broach many subjects—Cold War history, Soviet ingenuity, the politics of representation, postmodernity—it cannot help but be ambiguous, enigmatic, even transcendent. Balalaika cannot be reduced to a gallery’s inside joke, ever above our heads. What Farooq creates hovers well beyond the firmament.
Since his days slipping cardboard handguns to the women working his neighborhood café windows, Farooq has always enjoyed surprising family, friends, and strangers. But Farooq sets Balalaika apart as a call to create something evermore big and beautiful. “I’m like a Hebrew National Hot Dog,” he says. “I answer to higher authority.”
Asif Farooq takes studio visits by appointment.
Visit Asif Farooq’s website to schedule an appointment and learn more about his work.
WORDS BY: Michael Angel Martín
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Allen Henson.
Michael Angel Martín was born and raised in Miami, FL. He earned his MFA at Florida International University. His interests include stringed instruments, Benedictine contemplation, and mall food. His poems can be found in or are forthcoming in Dappled Things, The Offbeat, Green Mountains Review, and Jai Alai Magazine. He works for O, Miami, an organization that connects people through poetry. Find his work here.