ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Saks Afridi as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Saks Afridi is a Pakistan born, New York based multi-disciplinary artist. His art practice investigates the predicaments and perplexities of the life of 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.
Saks comes to art with a background as a Creative Director in advertising. He studied advertising at the Academy of Art and sculpture at the Art Students League of New York. He speaks English, Urdu, Pashto and conversational Arabic. He is the proud recipient of two Gold Cannes Lion Awards and a United Nations Award for Peace & Understanding.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Saks Afridi: I work in a style I like to call ‘Sci-Fi Sufism’. It’s about discovering galaxies and worlds within yourself. I try to visualize this search by fusing mysticism and storytelling. I pull from Sufi poetry, South Asian folklore, Islamic mythology, science fiction, architecture and calligraphy. Technology also plays a big role in how I make things.
AE: You began working as a graphic designer and later creative director for various large-scale advertising campaigns, what instigated your shift towards a fine arts practice? How was that transition?
SA: I started my career as a graphic designer, then advertising, then art. I find art and advertising have storytelling in common. I got into advertising because I thought that making 30-second stories would be a fun way to make a living; and it is, sometimes. I moved to NYC to work as a Creative Director on Mercedes-Benz at an ad agency called Merkley + Partners. Over the next few years, I discovered the New York art galleries and museums and it changed my life. Artists like Banksy, Rodin, Damien Hirst and Mona Hatoum really inspired me at first, and still do. So in 2013, I decided to take the leap from advertising into art. It was a chance to dive deeper into finding an original voice and trying new ideas that had been building up inside me. It was hard for me to choose a medium, so I worked with several. In the end, for me, the medium is whatever the concept dictates, and it still is. Some might call that a cop-out but I don’t care. I have fun doing it. Finding a unique voice that serves your inner calling and the whims of the art market is tricky. After about three years and 18 art projects later, I ran out of funds and had to go back into advertising. I was fortunate enough to get my old job back with the understanding that I can still continue my art practice. This became the best of both worlds for me. Today I get to make art and pay rent. Maybe I’m easily contented but both these things give me comfort.
AE: You engage with carpets in many of your works from different series. They range from lenticular pieces that features images of carpets, to the production of actual carpets. Can you share with us what the tradition of carpet weaving means to you and your practice?
SA: I like to manipulate and play with traditions and derive contemporary meanings from them. The Persian rug is the quintessential representation of tradition for me. Within the traditional tribal and floral patterns, I try to reinterpret the beauty to find the hidden and unexpected.
I work with weavers in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to bring some of these creations to life. This is an intricate process that takes months to create these limited edition woven works.
These days I’ve been working on making digital versions of my rugs and taking them into animation as well. This is for a collectible series of 250 unique works to be sold as NFTs. I call them Magic Carpet Collectibles. I’m so excited about them! Please follow me on the socials to find out more about them.
AE: 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?
SA: I’ll start by explaining what it is. SpaceMosque is a para-fictional 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.
The idea for the SpaceMosque concept came about in late 2017 when a number of things somehow fused in my head at once. I had just finished reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, A couple of years ago I had seen Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Lost Human Genetic Archive in Paris. That week, my son was learning the Islamic mythological story of Isra and Mi’raj – The Night Journey at Sunday school. All these things clicked together and something new came out. I used several media touch points for the SpaceMosque experience, so in a way, advertising also had a big influence on this project.
I also worked with architect Ferda Kolatan and some of his students at Pratt University to bring some of the spaceship artifacts to life. Working with such brilliant minds made the narrative even stronger and more authentic.
Today I’m continuing to work on SpaceMosque as a graphic novel with my writing partner Eddie Van Bloem. My hope is for it to become a TV show.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
SA: This is hard because I fall in love with new art every day. I love Damien Hirst because of his concept and level of execution. Mona Hatoum’s work stirs things inside me. Antony Gormley for his simplicity. Arnaldo Pomodoro blows me away. Faig Ahmed is the king of rug art, I admire his work very much. There are also several Pakistani artists I admire but aren’t direct creative influences but whom I respect very much. Artists like Rashid Rana, Imran Quraishi, Shahzia Sikandar, Salman Toor, Abdullah Syed, Tazeen Qayyum, Muzammil Raheel, RM Naeem, and Huma Bhabha, to name a few.
There are a group of 3D artists who have visually influenced me too. Artists like Ryan Hawthorne, FuckRender, Engeland Apostol, Ashthorp, Baran Sarper and Beeple.
Musically and mentally, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen have been huge influences. They sing the poetry of Bulleh Shah and other Sufi saints and have fed my soul for 30+ years.
AE: How have you approached or adjusted your practice during the Covid-19 pandemic? As things are slowly opening back up in the U.S. and parts of Europe, do you have any shows or projects coming up in 2021 and 2022?
SA: The pandemic forced a much needed slow-down. In 2020, I worked on honing my skills. The pandemic took the pressure off and allowed me to meditate on what’s next. These days I’m working on three things. A music project with the synthesizer company Moog. The Magic Carpet Collectibles series as NFTs. These digital rugs have super powers such as invisibility, flight and Talismanic abilities. They’ll also be priced at a more accessible price point than the physical rugs. And lastly a very exciting project about Rumi that I can’t talk about just yet but I can’t wait to share with you. Please stay tuned!
SAKS AFRIDI ONLINE: