Just a few blocks over from the violence-heavy Overtown district in Miami, Asif’s Guns greeted visitors in Wynwood with a giant striped balloon on the roof that held the name – something you’d find at a fireworks tent somewhere in the deep, deep south. Neon signage, American flags, and shooting targets belied the true contents of Asif Farooq’s Art Basel exhibit: 300+ meticulously handcrafted cardboard guns. Walking in, you’d have seen happy moms and exuberant children handling .44 Magnums and M16 Assault Rifles made from cereal boxes and packaging matter.
Asif Farooq, a Miami-born visual artist and musician, started making the guns as Christmas presents, which he sent to friends that were spread across the United States. Though the guns are models, they contain every single working mechanical piece of the actual pistol or automatic. They cock back, lock into place, and still even intimidate – they do everything but shoot. When Farooq first started making them I’d see him at bars where the bartender’s eyes would go anxiously wide until they recognized their artifice and then hold the ersatz gat like a giddy little kid.
Primary Projects, a gallery based in the Design District, represents Farooq and helped put together the pop-up shop. The guns are composed with fine-art precision and impressive replication due to Farooq’s tireless work ethic and enthusiasm. He – along with a veritable assembly line composed of friends and family – created the hundreds of guns over a period of nine months and 7,000 hours of labor all in his mom’s garage. Asif’s Guns was, as he said, a “real gun store,” with each fake gun selling for around the same price as a real one (i.e. around $300 for a revolver and $2,000 for a rifle).
It wasn’t easy getting the store approved; pushback from authorities was intense. The store and all the guns therein serve as an “open letter” to Farooq’s father as well as his close friend William Stuart Watkins, both of whom are deceased. About Watkins, Farooq said that “He really loved guns and we loved guns together.” The works, though representative of literal killing-machines, actually castrate the objects they epitomize. By making guns you can play with and “art that people can touch,” Farooq is taking the allure of violence and transforming it into a display of respect for creation.
The guns still are not monuments to peace. Farooq, a natural entertainer rife with melancholia and dark humor, places the practice of making and selling fake guns in a larger political context. Specifically, he calls out the idea of the social contract – the implicit agreement by the members of a society to give up some freedom for greater social protection – as something that “no one ever really sat down to write.” He applauds the right of people to own guns but criticizes the senseless violence that comes with them. Whether one finds this contradictory or not, there must still be a certain reverence for the sheer toil that went into the making of so many perfect facsimiles.
Some of the proceeds from Asif’s Guns are going to Stop Handgun Violence, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the maiming and slaughtering of people through education and sensible gun laws. Farooq sees the necessity of laws that regulate the sale and use of guns, but also the obligation of governments to respect the public’s right to protect themselves. With Asif’s Guns, there exists a form of art that decries the savagery of firearms, while also heralding their beauty and deadly virtuosity.