New York-based Pakistani artist Saks Afridi’s work explores the paradox of being an insider/outsider, looking at notions of belonging and temporary permanence, and our search for happiness within these states. Through a multidisciplinary practice that includes sculptural and site-specific installation work, he re-contextualizes existing historical and cultural narratives in order to raise questions about human rights, Islamophobia, war and social justice. Sophie Breitsameter speaks to him about his most recent series, SpaceMosque, in which he brings together mysticism and technology
Imagine an alien invasion – but not as you know it. In the near fictional past, a strange spacecraft enters the earth’s atmosphere, with the power to grant the prayers of every single resident on this earth. What are the ramifications of such an act of benevolence? In SpaceMosque, New York-based Pakistani artist Saks Afridi’s new work, the worlds of mysticism and technology collide. Riffing on the concept of Afrofuturism, Afridi’s ‘Sci-Fi Sufism’ approach envisages a “multi-room, multimedia exhibition”, SpaceMosque raises questions about folklore, mythology, and how we understand ourselves. We spoke to Afridi to find out more.
Tell us about your work. What is your process like?
For me, an idea or concept is the beginning of everything. Depending on the idea, I start most of my work on the computer in 2D or 3D. It helps me work in multiple mediums. So whether I’m making sculptures, lenticular pieces, rugs, miniature paintings or videos, they all start on the computer. I also studied sculpture, and I love the process. This has translated into working with digital clay in programmes like ZBrush and model and render in Cinema 4D, Photoshop or After Effects. I work with talented fabricators and collaborators who help materialize the work. The nature of the collaboration is different in every project and SpaceMosque is a culmination of all my processes, mediums and skills.
How did you become an artist?
I entered the world of art after 15 years in the world of advertising. I had a lot brewing inside me that I needed to create and get out there. So, with the support of my wife, I quit my job and started my art journey. It’s been an interesting one, with its share of financial hurdles and disappointments, but overall it’s been extremely rewarding. Struggle can really bring out creativity too.
What have been some of those struggles?
After three years of working as a full-time artist, the money unfortunately ran out. I admit I was quite delusional to think I could ‘make it’ in a year or two. Art is a marathon, not a sprint. So I went back into advertising. Fortunately I got my old job back, with the understanding that I can manage both careers. I’d like to say though, that I actually really enjoy advertising. I get to make creative things with my team every day. I’m lucky to be in a situation where I’m working full time, but with the flexibility to maintain an art practice. I’m constantly in the hustle of the juggle but I find it’s made me more resourceful and a better time manager. While going back to work has kept me away from the studio, I have adapted by simply changing studios from a physical space to the digital space. Now my laptop is my studio.
I also happen to be married to a very talented and analytical person. My wife, Suzie Afridi is a Palestinian American Standup Comedian and Storyteller. When we talk, we always analyze everything to find the insight in things. She has been a big influence on my work.
And what about highlights?
The NotaBugSplat project has been one of my career highlights: I was awarded a UN Award for Peace and Understanding. This project came about in 2013 and is probably the most viewed of my body of work. This collaboration would not have been possible without the equal efforts of my fellow collaborators Ali Rez, Assam Khalid, Akash Goel, JR, Insiya Syed, Noor Behram, Jamil Akhtar and the InsideOut project.
So tell us about SpaceMosque…
The SpaceMosque project marks a new direction in my work. It’s the most multi-disciplinary project I’ve ever undertaken. It’s essentially creating a new genre of art that fuses Science Fiction with Islamic Design, Architecture and Mythology. I call it Sci-fi Sufism under the umbrella of IslamoFuturism.
The SpaceMosque exhibit serves as a memorial and exploration of a parafictional phenomenon that occurred here on Earth in the near past. Due to the arrival of a strange vessel from outer space (which looks a bit like a mosque), every human being on the planet got their prayers answered. Somehow this phenomenon has been erased from our memories and the exhibit explores this lost moment in time.
This will be a multimedia exhibit including sculpture, VR, storytelling, digital and social media art and more. The work explores very current elements like fake news and age-old elements such as the human ego and greed, and puts it all together in a unique experience through a language we all speak today. Think of it as an immersive experience such as ‘Sleep No More‘ meets the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. I have the majority of this multi-room experience planned out both conceptually and on paper. I confess I also have long term TV show aspirations for it, but that’s much later.
How are you creating all the different elements?
I’m working on this with a team of collaborators comprising architects, fabricators, 3D modelers and digital visualizers. We’re excited to bring it all together. I personally have seen nothing like it before and it tackles one of life’s biggest ‘what if’s’. I hope people will walk through this immersive experience, putting the pieces of this parafictional lost history together and connect deeply with it.
Where did the idea come from?
The project has several influences, ranging from Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’, ‘Childhood’s End’ to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Lost Human Genetic Archive’ to Islamic mythological stories like ‘Isra and Mi’raj – The Night Journey’ and more. I found Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ to be fascinating and it falls into the same parafictional genre that SpaceMosque occupies.
Advertising has a big influence on this project. In advertising, when creatives come up with an idea, they always ask themselves “What’s the news headline this idea will this make?”. Sadly, fake news is a reality these days and so I apply that practice by creating a fake forgotten reality of the near past. Everything from how the news is shown, to individual people’s accounts of their experiences will be done in a very ‘real’ way. The illusion of reality is very important in a parafictional narrative like this.
Tell us more about this idea of spiritual machines, of mysticism-meets-technology…
The fusion of mysticism and technology has always been a part of my work in some form. Spiritual machines are a big part of the narrative and visual aesthetic of the project. I believe this work can be the beginning of a new genre in art and culture. I’m collaborating with an amazing architect. Ferda Kolatan, on creating sculptures of hybridized spiritual machines and other visual designers and writers who are building content for the project.
How has your culture and community influenced your art?
Well, I’m from a village in Pakistan and I now live in NYC. Everything in-between has been, and continues to be, an influence. I grew up moving countries every two to three years because of my father’s job at Pakistan Airlines. This cultural education shaped me into becoming comfortable as an ‘Insider Outsider’. This is the practice of achieving a sense of belonging while being out of place, finding happiness in a state of temporary permanence, and re-contextualizing existing historical and cultural narratives into the everyday.
Where do find inspiration?
Being open and curious, looking at things from multiple perspectives and putting myself out of my comfort zone. I try to absorb a lot of visuals and information online, and Instagram is a big inspiration. I purposefully only like images that inspire me and I use my likes as a mood board of inspiration.
My wife is also huge inspiration. As a comedian, she’s a words person so we talk about concepts and ideas a lot. She’s also been great moral support throughout this journey. I couldn’t have pursued art without her.
UFOs are a recurring theme in your work, why do you gravitate towards the supernatural, does it hold a personal significance?
When I was nine, I was in my grandmother’s house in Kohat, Pakistan – the house is over 200 years old. My cousins took pleasure in repeating (or creating) myths about our ancestor’s spirits still occupying the house. This really freaked me out, and twice, I really did see something, or I thought I did. I even had a one-sided conversation with this ghost. If I had to analyze it, I guess my curiosity for the supernatural started there. Later, when I was 14, I was abducted by aliens. Just kidding.
Rugs are also a big part of Pakistani culture. As I mentioned, the practice of being an insider outsider is being able to live in and be of two worlds at once. I started thinking about how that would look visually. The symbol of the ultimate outsider is an alien, whether legal, illegal and other-worldly. So the UFO made perfect sense to be the icon of aliens to replace the crescent of a traditional Persian rug. This odd juxtaposition kickstarted my discovery into the play of pattern and dimensionality. The Space Time Continuum rug takes a traditional Afghan rug and transforms it into a door into another dimension. The Gravity rug deconstructs a Persian rug where everything falls to the ground, ready for rebirth. I’m also a big fan of Faig Ahmed’s work. He’s done so many amazing things with rugs, there’s very little for the rest of us to do!
Your work comments on current social and political issues, what messages are you trying to communicate to the global community?
For me it’s more about creating awareness and asking questions. People can take their own interpretations from the work. I’ve done work about drone warfare, corruption, violence and Islamophobia. Overall, with each social issue I work on, there’s a self-reflective component to it as well as a general ‘be open to others’ message. One issue that I would say is very important to me is immigration in America. The Muslim Ban is deeply concerning. My Code-Switching series of lenticular works tackles this by celebrating the rigor of the immigrant work ethic. Other relevant works include Carousel, in collaboration with Qinza Najm, questioning the duplicity of rhetoric in dictatorships and democracies, as well as We the People, a bronze sculpture through which I explore the space immigrants occupy in the fabric of the US.
What does the future hold for you?
The near future is all about SpaceMosque and is a world I could explore for years. I’mcurrently seeking two things for it: Funding for the project and an institution to partner with. I’m looking for small or large patrons to help with production and fabrication. It’s a multi-faceted exhibit and my collaborators and fabricators are great but after a while, they still need to get paid. When it comes to institutions, I want it to be with a museum. I’m currently in talks with two institutions. Let’s see how it goes…
Images courtesy of the artist