Remembering Asif Farooq, Who Spent a Decade Building a Plane Out of Cardboard

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Asif Farooq spent more than a decade of his life building a two-ton MiG-21 out of cardboard, reverse-engineered then scaled-up for him to pilot, a feat that caught the attention of New Times more than once, including a Mastermind award in 2017.

For many of us who knew him, Asif, who died last week, was that and much more.

“Any distance between us is yours. I’m such a fragile and vulnerable open book. I love you, and I’m beyond grateful for your friendship. Sometimes friends just overlook little niggles that would otherwise spoil a great thing.”

I am rereading our WhatsApp conversations. Hours ago, I learned that Asif was dead, and I am going through some of the things he made. I flick on the pink neon hammer and sickle in my living room. I open the sides of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch box taped together around a pencil drawing of an airplane part and stare at the letters in his name. I watch the birthday song he made me with a synthesizer. I do everything except think of the plane.

“I feel like I see you. Like I know you man.”

I don’t how many people have had this kind of a friend, who said that and meant it and knew it.

“He would always introduce me as his brother. He didn’t care what other people thought,” Michael Martin tells me.

Martin is a Miami poet whose body is spotted in Asif tattoos.

“I don’t regret a single one,” he adds.

Asif willed tattoo ideas into existence and would spend hours on each one, laughing and saying, “Ah, this is fucking crazy.” For years, you only knew Asif’s art if you knew him, and then he made the guns and then the plane.

“He knew that he had to make something that anyone would say, ‘That’s really fucking cool,’” Martin adds.

Asif’s first gallery show was in 2012 when Primary Projects displayed “Asif’s Guns.” As a rule, I do not like guns. Too many people have had their lives cut short, from school shootings to children mistaking a trigger for a toy to the hashtags and those who don’t get their name said. Then I walked into Asif’s Gun Shop and felt my breath go shallow. These were cardboard guns that were real and a joke and a window into Asif’s life and a challenge to my own. I heard that he was building a MiG-21 in his apartment. This is how I met Asif.

Over the years, we had more chances to talk, conversations that seemed to never end; threads dropped and picked up unendingly. We would stand in his warehouse of a studio, sweat running into my lawyer attire of collared shirt and suit pants. Visiting Asif at work was always disorienting. In the background, he was taming a life-size creature of war through cardboard, an impossibly long and detailed process. But we always spoke first about something else: the details of Soviet maps, the origins of Facebook, or the history of the Rwandan genocide.

Through these conversations, I came to appreciate Asif’s ability to capture the enigma of his life and work. In many ways, he did not follow a typical artist’s career path. More than once, he joked about sneaking into courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But his education came under the direction of a Vietnam veteran, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Tomkins Jr., a retired gunner on a helicopter, who taught Asif welding at age 13. There was a local neon craftsman in Hialeah who showed Asif the art of bending tubes and filling them with inert gas. His dad, a civil engineer, gave him an engineer’s eye for precision. More than anything, Asif was self-taught.

While Asif never doubted the scope and ambition of his work, he had little desire to be in a museum’s collection. His collectors, if that term is appropriate, were often people he admired and enjoyed talking to: retired cops, military veterans, and people that like guns and airplanes. And for so many people, whether it was the bartenders at Churchill’s or new friend, received Asif’s pieces as gifts.   

This spirit would bubble over to all ages of studio guests. If I brought my toddler, Asif would produce, from an endless supply of children’s toys, a Styrofoam plane or miniature Bigfoot that tripled in size in a cup of water.

We would talk for an hour. I would walk around and stare. At the end of every visit — or phone call or WhatsApp message string — Asif told me he loved me.

“After seven years building what might be the loveliest object of the last three generations, objects don’t…hold any value for me.”

But every discussion about Asif included the plane.

The first time Rob Goyanes, Miami native and writer, learned of it, there was a gut reaction: He had to write a book.

“It was so absurd,” Goyanes says. “Only someone insanely talented and sincere would knowingly dedicate so many years to it.”

Goyanes remembers the first time he visited the studio, a scene that opens his manuscript-in-progress.

“He left me waiting in a chair,” then disappeared into the shop. Goyanes heard the band saw and Asif laughing with his studio assistant, Erica Mohan. “Close your eyes,” Asif said, and after waiting altogether too long, Goyanes opened them to find a perfectly cut, cursive R, a present from the subject to the author.

“What I love about our relationship is the stay of execution we’ve seemingly enjoyed for years. We have a finely tuned repertoire of gallows humor, you and I.”

A sense of humor is one of those things famously difficult to describe — no one likes to hear a joke explained to them. But for those of us staying up late thinking about Asif, we can hear his laugh. Mohan, Asif’s studio assistant from 2015 to 2017, knows the plane about as well as anyone, and she also told me a story that captured Asif’s humor. Someone had brought chickens to the studio (for the amazing “Chicken Piano” video). One of the chickens got loose, and Asif, Mohan, and Angel, another employee, unsuccessfully chased it around the studio. The chicken was jumping all over the plane, avoiding its handlers.

“Asif and Angel stopped and started singing ‘Silent Night’ as loud as possible,” Mohan remembers.

It was the middle of the summer. As the singing reached its loudest, Asif cornered the chicken and snatched it by the legs from the fuselage.

And we are back at the plane, where every conversation somehow meandered. The plane will be finished. I do not know where it will stay, but I know where it should live. Against the backdrop of a city whose imagination can feel as short-lived as the time it takes to build a condo tower, Asif brought to life a plane that was absurd and beautiful and connected to us, the ability to imagine and relentlessly pursue outlandish things.

I pray that the plane, like Asif’s memory, lives on in our imagination.

Asif is survived by his mother and four siblings. The cause of death is unknown.

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