Sacha Jafri interview

Brit painter Sacha Jafri tells Nyree Barrett about his bizarre process, his hatred of ‘shock art’ and how he will one day be a legend

Jafri surrounded by his ‘Universe of the Child’ collection
Jafri surrounded by his ‘Universe of the Child’ collection
‘96 Brushes Used for Disappearing Landscapes' features the brushes that have coloured his canvases over the years
‘96 Brushes Used for Disappearing Landscapes' features the brushes that have coloured his canvases over the years
‘Kafka’s Waiting Room’, the author is one of Jafri’s main inspirations
‘Kafka’s Waiting Room’, the author is one of Jafri’s main inspirations
‘The Meeting’
‘The Meeting’
‘The Embrace’ – can you see the two people embracing? They take the form of an anatomical heart
‘The Embrace’ – can you see the two people embracing? They take the form of an anatomical heart
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The day Sacha Jafri put David Beckham’s footprint on canvas for charity (raising Dhs1.8 million), he both earmarked his swirling works as ones to watch and pigeonholed himself as a celebrity-focused artist. We talk to him about everything but David Beckham’s foot.

On Dubai’s decorative art and design

‘Dubai is a very creative place, but it gets the arts wrong a lot. There’s a very thick line between interior design and art, and people are happy to spend millions on big chandeliers here, but they buy the most awful interior design paintings, you know, brown with a bit of white calligraphy. If you buy art sensibly, it becomes part of your assets and it enriches the space. You go to Deutsche Bank in Berlin and it’s a museum to the
arts – the bank even levies money off it. They need to start thinking like that here, because they have the money, but have spent it on things that will only crumble.’

On the emerging UAE art scene

‘Look at art in Egypt, Saudi and Iran: it has developed over hundreds of years, so it’s all very anthropological and therefore poignant. There’s some very good stuff in the UAE, but there’s a necessity to create, which forces the issue and so the end product is lacking. It’s very much ‘we look to our cultural past and yet we have modernity, isn’t that interesting?’ But it’s very art school. You know, here’s a wind tower and then someone standing next to it in an abaya but with a Ferrari next to them.’

On wanting to be a legend

‘I have various ambitions as a painter and they have to be fulfilled, otherwise I won’t feel like I’m living. I want to be remembered in 500 years, I want to be the Kandinsky of my time: that will take at least another 20 years. It’s more important to be poignant than to be commercial and sell paintings. Money is just to buy time.’

On his hypnotic process

‘I do a collection every two years and I paint for a year solid from the subconscious, which is full-on – I lose about a stone and a half. I stare at a blank canvas for three, four, five hours, just staring. In life you never stare at one object, you only stare into the distance when daydreaming: that’s the only time you’ll be in the subliminal mind. Staring at a blank canvas, I fall into a trance-like state through concentration. It takes time. When I’m creating in this state I have no conscious thoughts – if the phone goes I don’t hear it. I can paint for 19 hours solid without going to the toilet, without water, without sleep, nothing. There’s no conscious decision on colour, mark and shape. It starts from an emotion. If my subconscious was dull and one-dimensional, then the canvas would be the same, so I paint solidly for a year then I take six months to travel, read and connect with people – feeding the subconscious.’

On ‘shock art’

‘Painting was lost for a while due to shock art in the ’80s. Everyone was walking around being manipulated by the art market. It was all about money, all about, “I’ll buy a collection of shocking weird stuff, put it in my gallery, get lots of press and then it’ll be worth 10 times what I paid for it.” This is what Saatchi did for 10 years. There were 40 guys running the art market, but there’s been a huge power shift. People basically spoke out and said, “What value does shock art have?” There’s enough stuff to make us feel sad and remorseful. In my mind the job of the painter is to uplift the soul and seduce the spirit.’

On his latest collection

‘My Universe of the Child collection began when George Clooney and Paul Freedman were in Darfur making a film called Sand and Sorrow and they asked me to fly to Darfur and do a painting for the film. Being there changed my life. It’s one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen. Babies were thrown in the air and shot like clay pigeons and the children that were old enough to fight – those over the age of nine – were given guns and made heroin addicts. I decided not to paint the darkness; I decided I would show the strength of humanity among the people of Darfur.

‘I then worked with the children at [UAE art charity] START and Dubai’s Tashkeel gallery. By working with the kids I realised people group the Middle East together, which is wrong, so I decided to visit 22 countries across the Middle East and a bit of Asia. I found that if I was going to identify each of these countries through painting, I couldn’t go about it the normal way. The adult always has an agenda – political, financial or social – but the child is born with the gift to create purely, and the only thing they’ll learn throughout their life is how to forget that. Children are the greatest artists in the world: Picasso once said that by the age of eight he could draw as well as Rembrandt, but that it took him another 40 years to learn to draw as well as a child. I travelled around the Middle East, including war-torn countries, with these huge canvases and I’d hold workshops with children and say, “Tell me about your hopes, your dreams, things that make you happy, things that make you scared.” I’d draw them all out and then roll up the canvas and take it to the next place.’

Universe of the Child and Sacha Jafri’s Private Collection continue at Cuadro Gallery until April 25. There will be a charity auction of the works in early May.

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