Q&A: Saks Afridi, Artist and Adman, on Crafting Winged Sandals and Mythic Sci-Fi Worlds

The Merkley GCD lets his imagination take flight

Winged sandals with a sci-fi backstory. Wild fusions of content and commerce with religious overtones. A seesaw that literally reflects the loss of childhood innocence. 

Welcome to the world of Saks Afridi, a visual artist who also serves as a group creative director at Merkley + Partners in New York. Afridi grew up in Pakistan, and that background, along with a drive to explore new territory, informs his approach to design, marketing and sculpture. 

Working with footwear maker Markhor, he recently developed a strikingly novel variation on the Peshawari chappal, a style of leather sandal commonly worn in Pakistan's northwest region. Afridi replaced the sandals' traditional truck-tire soles with lightweight rubber, and, most notably, tricked out the kicks with feathery wings: 

Dubbed Hawa Sandals, the handmade items sell for $395 in white or tan. But that's just the beginning of the story. 

The shoes play into a sweeping "SpaceMosque" narrative that Afridi has constructed—an epic tale positing that, long ago, a mysterious vessel from the future visited Earth and answered one prayer from each human being every 24 hours. (The ship's specific shape and appearance depended on the personal experience of each individual.) Ultimately, the vessel vanished, along with all memory of its existence. 

As for how the sandals fit into that epic plot, he explains:

"A boy in Peshawar, Pakistan, whose parents were separated, prayed desperately for a way to visit his father in Kohat. The next day, his prayer was answered, and his sandals had grown wings. He called them his Hawa Sandals—literally, 'wind/air sandals.' They flew him many miles every night to see his beloved father. When the spaceship left the skies, the sandals lost their ability to fly." 

Despite that development in the story, Afridi produced these contemporary images of the sandals helping people soar: 

Afridi hopes to expand "SpaceMosque" into a graphic novel or TV series, and he's currently exhibiting some artwork connected with the tale at the Ford Foundation's "Utopian Imagination" show in New York:

"The fusion of mysticism and technology has probably always been a part of my work, but this project is a culmination of all my past experiences, mediums and skills," Afridi tells Muse. "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." 

In our conversation below, edited for length and clarity, Afridi discusses his influences, aspirations and his desire to push boundaries.

Muse: You're a marketer and an artist. Are they two sides of the same coin?

Saks Afridi: Advertising tells us what to feel, and art teaches us how to feel. I live in both worlds. What got me into art was just going to museums … Works by Damien Hirst, Banksy, Mona Hatoum and Ai Weiwei all moved me. So did Rodin and Picasso. They made me want to do more with my creativity beyond advertising. Don't get me wrong, I love advertising, but it isn't a form of personal expression. For that, I needed art. I had many ideas inside me dying to get out, but they weren't advertising ideas. They were deeper and more personal. They didn't have a brief or a "call to action" or a deal. My mind was filled with visuals of questions. And advertising doesn't do questions, it does answers. I had been making small artworks on weekends, but it wasn't fulfilling enough.

One day, walking through MOMA with my wife, she looked over to me and said, "If you want this, you should pursue it. I can see you here. If you want to quit [your agency job], do it. We'll figure it out somehow." It was a very risky move, because she didn't have a full-time job and we didn't have much savings. We were also a family living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I've always been grateful for her belief in me. 

Can you talk about some challenges you faced early on?

In the summer of 2013, I resigned from Merkley. Before leaving, my boss and a gem of a human being, Andy Hirsch, handed me a quarter and said, "I know they don't make pay-phones anymore, but here's a quarter for a phone call. In case you'd ever like to come back." Over the next three years, I hustled hard. I worked on 18 different projects ranging from installations to rugs to sculptures and paintings. I studied sculpture at the Art Students League. I set up my studio in Hell's Kitchen and started being exhibited in gallery group shows. I also collaborated with other artists.

This is uncommon in the art world, but for me, coming from advertising, collaboration made total sense. My first major collaboration was with my old friend Ali Rez for a project called Not a Bug Splat [raising awareness of civilian casualties in drone attacks]. It was a personally fulfilling project that made a difference. This was art, not advertising. The project, however, did lead to my first Gold Cannes Lion. I always found it funny that I had to leave advertising to win a Lion.

Toward the end of 2016, our savings ran dry. I had made some money from art, but not enough to sustain a livelihood. I was seriously thinking about using Andy's quarter, when one day the phone rang. It was my old partner from Merkley, Eddie Van Bloem. He told me his partner—my replacement—was leaving and asked me if I wanted to freelance. I jumped at the chance. A month later, my boss Andy invited me to come back full time. I told him about my art practice, and he eased my concerns by encouraging me to continue.

What's your goal for SpaceMosque?

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. 

How did the story develop?

The idea 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 [controversial mockumentary] Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable fascinating, and it falls into the same para-fictional genre that SpaceMosque occupies. I wanted to use lots of media touch-points for the SpaceMosque experience. Advertising has had a huge influence on this project. In advertising, when creatives come up with an idea, they sometimes ask themselves, "What's the PR headline this idea will this make?" Using this approach, I created fictional news headlines from this forgotten phenomenon as part of the work. The illusion of reality is very important. 

And the winged sandals from the story really exist, both as items for sale and in your artwork, correct? 

I wanted to somehow incorporate them into a sculpture as part of the SpaceMosque exhibit, which happened at Aicon Gallery in NYC earlier this year. I had recently been introduced to Markhor chappals through a friend, and I really wanted a pair. That night, I was showing my wife the Markhor website and she suggested I reach out to them to collaborate on the sculpture. So I did, and they were really into the idea. We immediately started sharing thoughts and drawings. It was a very natural connection and good collaboration.

Religion plays a role, and that's unusual for marketing. The notion of "prayer" playing into commerce seems refreshing and novel.

Spirituality is something I've always been fascinated by. I'm not very practicing in the traditional Sunni Muslim sense, but I do find comfort in Sufism, the mystical inward dimensions of Islam, which is more about self-understanding, which leads to the understanding of the divine. With SpaceMosque, I tried to create a collective experience that everyone experiences differently, at the same time. Through a miracle-performing, prayer-granting Spiritual Machine, we look inwards and ask ourselves what we would pray for. Whether you have faith or not, that makes you self-reflect.

Sounds like this could work in multimedia—as a movie, or on TV?

I'm focusing on exploring the world further through stories and artworks. There has been some talk of the concept being made into a TV show, but it's still very early. A graphic novel excites me as well, and I plan to start work on it by the end of the year. 

You have a brand new exhibit, yes?

"Don't Grow Up, It's a Trap" is an installation I worked on with artist Qinza Najm. We initially proposed it a few years back for Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, but Parks & Recreation rejected it because seesaws are banned in NYC. This year, we were invited to install the work permanently in Karachi, Pakistan, as part of the Karachi Biennale 2019. It's composed of a seesaw divided by a double-sided stainless steel mirror-finished wall. The wall has an opening in the center-bottom area where the seesaw is situated. The height of the opening is such that when children ride the seesaw, they can see and interact with each other at eye level. However, when adults ride it, they mostly see their own reflections.

This piece is about the loss of the innocence. Children are naturally open-minded and carry no preconceived notions about others. As we grow into adulthood, many of us become more jaded. The sculpture encourages people to embrace differences and reconnect with their inner child. By accepting others as they are, without labels, we break down the walls that keep us apart, while celebrating diversity and encouraging self-reflection. 

On an entirely different intellectual plane, can you talk about your advertising work?

I really enjoy working on White Castle. It's a cool family-owned brand with a cult following. The work we do, especially social, is fresh and usually rooted in pop culture. Our most recent work is a fun campaign for Breakfast Sliders using Humpty Dumpty. This campaign, the work of creative team Erin Moore and Matt Hankin, has social activations and a Snapchat AR experience. We worked with Ataboy Studios on it. 

Another fun project was White Castle Chicken Rings. This was from creatives Jacqui Bontke and Michael Williams. We worked with some fantastic improv actors to bring this campaign to life. 

[My partner] Eddie and I also occasionally work on Mercedes-Benz. Our favorite spot is probably "Snow Date." 

I try to bring my art experience into advertising, and vice versa, as much as possible. I'm very lucky to be at an agency that gives me the flexibility to do it. It's truly a privilege. 

David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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