Video: How Sacha Jafri created the $62m world's largest canvas painting in Dubai
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Video: How Sacha Jafri created the $62m world’s largest canvas painting in Dubai

Video: How Sacha Jafri created the $62m world’s largest canvas painting in Dubai

Here’s what it took to create one of the biggest artistic, social and philanthropic projects of its kind to date

Sacha Jafri Dubai The Journey of Humanity

Sacha Jafri’s mother thought he was clinically mad. His father was convinced he was a genius. One of them was right.

As a biracial child growing up on the margins in the UK, Jafri relied on a scholarship to enter Eton – never mind that the wealth generated by his great, great grandfather who was a maharaja in India somehow vanished within a few generations – where he studied with Prince William. As Jafri adds, he was severely dyslexic at the time. “The head of dyslexia for Europe chose three people around the world to conduct a case study, and I was one of them.” She found that his normal IQ was so low, it couldn’t be plotted. However, his social IQ was above 200 and also couldn’t be plotted on a chart. “She said, ‘One of the wires in your brain is in the wrong place. You shouldn’t actually be able to exist in this world, because these two parts of the brain do not connect’.”

As a result of the dyslexia, Jafri says that he was bullied and couldn’t really fit in. When the headmaster at Eton summoned his parents – which is when they presented two starkly different reactions to their son’s condition – he also offered Jafri the keys to a porter cabin which would be exclusively his and filled with paint, canvas and an easel. He was allowed to do whatever he wanted there, provided he could make it to all his other classes. That sparked a real interest and the start of his work as an artist. “I then got into Oxford University and got an MA from Oxford, scoring a double first.”

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, Jafri’s had a prolific career in the art world. But it’s also one that he’s tried to desperately get as far away from its traditional trappings as he can. “The art world is full of nonsense. It’s full of smoke and mirrors, manipulations, lies, dishonesty and corruption. Art is seen as this commodity, which is traded, heavily manipulated, and things are hidden away so the value can grow. If you shock people, you get them talking about something for a bit. You then put a high value on it and sell it. People talk about it, but it doesn’t last long. It lasts two months, three months – if you’re Damien Hirst you might get away with it for a couple of years,” says Jafri.

It’s the main reason why the Dubai-based artist has chosen to remain independent and has never signed with a gallery throughout his career. “I want to choose who owns my work. I say no to 90 per cent of the people who want to buy my work, because I don’t want it put in a vault and then sold five years later to make money. That’s everything I’m completely against.”

Sacha Jafri Dubai The Journey of Humanity
Jafri took over the ballroom of the Atlantis – The Palm hotel in Dubai to paint the world’s largest canvas

Tightly controlling the sale of his art hasn’t in any way stopped him from becoming a highly sought-after artist whose paintings regularly sell for millions, and whose collectors include Barack Obama, Madonna, Bill Gates and George Clooney. It was, in fact, a trip with Clooney to Darfur in 2004 during the filming of Clooney’s documentary Sand and Sorrow that set the artist on a mission to use the proceeds of his work for charity. He visited over 42 refugee camps across the world, and has raised more than $60m for charities over the last few years – though he’s now raised the stakes even higher with his latest artwork.

Over seven months from March through to September last year, when much of Dubai was at various stages of a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jafri took over the ballroom of the Atlantis – The Palm hotel in Dubai to paint the world’s largest canvas.

That painting, called The Journey of Humanity, spread across 17,600 square feet, was an idea that was crowdsourced from children around the world. Jafri’s team asked children to send their paintings around the themes of isolation and connection, which were then printed onto A3 size sheets and stuck all over the canvas, on top of which Jafri took his paintbrush. “We got millions of children from 140 countries to tell us how they felt in those moments of the Covid-19 [pandemic].”

The finished piece which required the use of 1,065 paint brushes and 6,300 litres of paint, officially entered the Guinness World Records in February recognised as ‘The Largest Art Canvas’. It comprises of five sections: The Soul of the Earth; Nature; Arrival of Humanity; the Solar System; and the Child’s Portal.

But singlehandedly creating a painting across the space nearly equivalent to a football field requires an extraordinary physical effort. Jafri explains that he would spend around 18 hours a day bent over – during which he was unaware of what was happening to his body as he was in a trance-like state when painting. It’s not an exaggeration, as scientists who have studied his brain while he’s at work noticed deep theta waves – triggered when the subconscious is operating at high intensity.

Sacha Jafri Dubai The Journey of Humanity
Jafri with Andre Abdoune who successfully bid $62m for the entire painting

The Journey of Humanity and the physical toll it took resulted in a herniated disc where the cushioning between the vertebrae in two places along his spine disintegrated completely. He also dislocated his pelvis on both axes, which resulted in his heel disconnecting from his feet. Jafri had to have surgeries on his back and pelvis, and said that he would begin every morning with a pain injection. The desire though to finish the painting and then drive millions into charity is what, he says, kept him going through the excruciating pain.

In February, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE’s Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence unveiled the project. Jafri says that rather than being a validation of his work as an artist, the minister’s decision to support this global philanthropic initiative “says more about him, than it does about us”.

After Jafri finished the painting, the plan was to cut it up into 70 framed canvasses and sell it at several auctions around the world to raise a staggering Dhs110m – at least – under an initiative titled ‘Humanity Inspired’. There were plans to hold auctions at Davos, Paris, London and other destinations – besides an online auction on Facebook too. However, at an auction held on March 22 at Atlantis in Dubai, French businessman Andre Abdoune successfully bid a whopping $62m – over double Jafri’s initial estimate – to secure the entire painting.

During that auction, two other related pieces were also sold. It included the Brushes Piece which comprised of the original brushes Jafri used when creating the record-breaking painting, and also a framed Clothing Worn by the Artist piece.

Jafri says that all the money raised by the painting will now be donated to charity. He has partnered with Dubai Cares, UNICEF and UNESCO as well as Eva Longoria’s Global Gift Foundation to help fund children’s projects around the world. The initial amount will help aid sanitation, education, food and healthcare needs of children from Brazil and India to the Philippines and Indonesia, and beyond. But Jafri’s got his eye on an even bigger picture – to use the $62m as a building block for the UN’s Giga project to provide internet access to children around the world. “A $2bn fund has been raised on the back of this project through the UN’s Giga project. That’s the aim here.”

The Humanity Inspired is reportedly the largest artistic, social and philanthropic project of its kind to date. But the artist is keen not to cast himself as bigger than the cause. “One man can’t do this on his own, but I can send ripple effects.” Jafri is, unwittingly, triggering a tsunami.

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