Saks Afridi is a Pakistan born, New York based multi-disciplinary artist. His art practice explores the dichotomy of being 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 with the contemporary. He does this through a new genre he terms as ‘Sci-fi Sufism’, where he fuses mysticism and futurism to discover worlds and galaxies within the self.
Through his work, he recreates the historical and cultural narratives to highlight social issues. Saks collaborates with weavers, painters, and food vendors to address the problems around identity, Islamophobia, drone warfare, and social justice. We talk to Saks about finding inspiration through music, distorting and deconstructing design and mysticism and technology.
What was your journey to becoming an artist?
My first form of expression was music and songwriting in high school. In college, I minored in photography where the darkroom experience changed me, I became a much more visual person. This was 1997 and Adobe Photoshop, the new “digital darkroom” was very new. Learning the software opened up a whole new world for me. It led me to graphic design, advertising and ultimately into art.
You began working as a graphic designer and later creative director for various large-scale advertising campaigns, why did you shift towards a fine arts practice?
I got into advertising (around 2004) because I love storytelling. However, in a post-9/11 world, storytelling took on a larger meaning, almost a responsibility. This type of storytelling practice felt like it belonged more in the art realm more than anywhere else. I seriously contemplated going into filmmaking too but I like how open ended art can be. Advertising and design firms have KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and art has KQIs (Key Question Indicators). The harder the questions the art poses, the more meaningful it is.
In 2013, I decided to take a break from advertising and focus on art full time. About three years and 18 projects later, savings had run out. I was lucky enough to get my old job back with the understanding that I can still continue my art practice. I’m blessed to have a great boss and agency who to this day appreciates and encourages my art. So like many artists, my 9-5 supports my 5-9.
How has your heritage, culture and faith influenced your artistic practice?
I come from a village in Northwest Pakistan called Babri Banda. I’m ethnically Pashtun of the Afridi tribe and my village is rooted in traditions and tribal culture. However I grew up around the world (my dad worked for Pakistan Airlines), and my life was always about balancing my two worlds. I would say it was less code-switching and more creating my own code, something I still do today.
Music played a big role in my practice. My teenage years were spent strumming Pearl Jam and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen and Pink Floyd equally. Seeing Nusrat perform in a private performance where I sat at his feet for hours was a religious experience for me. I’ve been in love with Sufi music and poetry since the early 90’s and I often incorporate lyrics and poetry into my work. One of my rituals is that I often work on an artwork with a single piece of music playing on repeat. This creates an added bond for me.
SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA. 60"X40". C-PRINT, 2015.
A commentary on the miseducation of blind faith. The Arabic script in this manuscript is an English-to-Arabic transliteration of excerpts of the song:
Somewhere in America - Jay Z
I’ve played around with ideas of spirituality in some of my projects like ‘SpaceMosque’, ‘Somewhere in America’. I’ve lived several years in the Middle East and am also married to a Palestinian, so that has infused more Middle Eastern culture into my work as well. Now Fairuz, Abdel el 7aleem and Abida Parveen hold equal footing in our household, but nobody touches Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
You engage with carpets in many of your works from different series. They include pieces that feature images of carpets, to the production of actual carpets. What does the tradition of carpet weaving mean to you and why is it significant in your practice?
I like the geometric nature of rugs, they remind me of childhood. I have a childhood memory of playing on a Persian rug and imagining the rug to be a forest and animals and birds on them would fly off.
I’ve also made it my mission to try and find new ways to distort and deconstruct these centuries-old designs. I guess it slowly became a part of my voice. I see rugs as vehicles for travel or escape. Fables of magic carpets traveling from point A to point B exist in tales of Aladin and stories of the Jinn. My rugs however can travel between dimensions! Ok that’s not true, but I wish it was.
Your work fuses mysticism and technology, what interests you in particular about this?
I like taking the mind on a journey to ask big questions. Technology and mysticism both do that. They’re both inherently based in curiosity, and along the way, you learn something about yourself. Science fiction also intrigues me because its mythical storytelling, much like religion is. Space technology allows us to travel to the great beyond, where no man has gone before etc. The idea of finding the source of our souls in the stars is where mysticism and technology meet.
Can you tell us about your Space Mosque project? How did it come about and do you see it as an evolving and ongoing series?
SpaceMosque is a para-fictional sci-fi themed narrative in which, for a brief time, a mysterious spacecraft resembling a hovering mosque appeared and every human on Earth was granted one answered prayer every 24 hours. The narrative explores greed and morality at war when prayer becomes the de facto global currency. The work asks us to reflect on what it is we pray for and to what end.
‘SpaceMosque and the Miraj Phenomenon’, collaborators: Narcy (Yassin Alsalman) with Tamara Abdul Hadi, Roï Saade
The idea for the SpaceMosque concept came about in late 2017 when a number of influences fused in my head. From Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’, to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Lost Human Genetic Archive’ to Islamic mythological stories like ‘Isra and Mi’raj - The Night Journey’ and even Halo 3 - Museum of Humanity. I later found Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable’ to be fascinating and it falls into the same para-fictional genre that SpaceMosque occupies. I used lots of media touchpoints for the SpaceMosque experience, so Advertising has also had a huge influence on this project.
SpaceMosque made its debut at Aicon Contemporary in January 2019. I was quite happy with how it turned out. I collaborated with architect Ferda Kolatan and his team on some of the artifacts for the show, as well as shoe manufacturer in Pakistan called Markhor.
SpaceMosque is currently being worked on, albeit slowly, as a graphic novel. Maybe it becomes a TV show one day. I think I need to take a break from it for a year or two and come back to it. I dedicated most of 2017-2019 to it and now I’m busy on other projects.
UFOs are a recurring theme in your work, why do you gravitate towards the supernatural?
I’m a curious person and want to learn about the unknown. Aliens and Jinn fascinate me and that’s why I keep revisiting them. Aliens and UFOs are icons of the ultimate outsider, I can relate to that. Over the past year or two, I’ve made some art on Jinn as well, but never published it. To be honest, the Jinn work scares me, so I teeter on the edge of finishing it but every time I take a step in that direction, I receive a message to stop. These messages to stop have come to me in mysterious forms and they freak me out every time. So I pause and don’t push it too far. At the risk of sounding banal, curiosity killed the cat! But did you know that Jinn have been known to appear sometimes in the form of cats.
Your work comments on current social and political issues, what messages are you trying to communicate to your audiences?
Injustice affects all artists and our works show it whether we like it or not. In 2014, I worked on a collaborative art project on drone attacks in Pakistan. It was called Notabugsplat. I did it in collaboration with Ali Rez, Assam Khalid, Akash Goel, Insiya Syed, Noor Behram and Jamil Akhtar. We received a United Nations Award for peace and understanding for the work.
I wouldn’t say I’m an activist by any means. Then again, all art is political. I guess one message I feel strongly about is that religion shouldn’t be seen with such black and white perspectives as it is. Too much blood has spilled in its name and too many nations and people torn apart because of it.
Which of your works is your favorite and why?
My most current work, because in this moment, I’m in love with it the most. But also the entire SpaceMosque project because I’m proud of the idea and how it eventually came to life.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I would say the SpaceMosque show opening at Aicon Contemporary Gallery NY in Jan 2019. It was the culmination of two years of work and it was felt great to release it. Some of the pieces were also exhibited at the Ford Foundation later that year, which was quite an honor for me as well. Equally, I’m very excited about what’s coming.
Can you tell us about current projects you are working on?
Im working on 2-3 projects right now but the one I’ll talk about is called ‘Woven Portals’. It’s a series of 100 artworks, where I blend the geometry of Persian rugs with spaceship navigation interfaces and schematics. Each artwork is part hand-made, and part software-generated and will be available as NFTs. Each NFT will come with a digital vector file of the artwork, which means the collector is free to print their Woven Portal at any size they wish, with no loss in quality. I haven’t reached my goal of 100 yet but I’m getting closer every day. Each one is a meditation and journey the details that occur are surprising, even to me. I look forward to sharing them with you in 2022. You can see some of the pieces on my Instagram and Twitter.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?
Honestly, where the word ‘Islamic’ goes away and it’s all seen as mainstream art.
Find out more about Saks