11 July 2017 by Matthew Priest for Esquire Middle East
Barack Obama, George Clooney, Madonna, Kevin Spacey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Gates, Richard Branson – are all the names of people whose walls are graced by the works of British artist Sacha Jafri.
It’s no wonder Jafri has previously been hailed as one of the world’s most important living artists.
A former classmate of Tracey Emin and a specialist in ‘magical realism’, Esquire Middle East were invited by Sacha into his Dubai home, ahead of his 18-year global retrospective, to discuss everything from the man’s meditation techniques to his brief career as a professional cricket player.
ESQUIRE: Wow. Your place here is incredible.
Sacha Jafri: Thanks, it was a real passion project for me. I created all the interior, building the furniture, there’s even a tuk tuk in the garden I sourced from Rajasthan that I cut in half and turned into a bar! I feel like this house is like walking into my paintings.
When I paint, I put a huge canvas on the floor and I paint in this manic state, dipping my brushes into pots of paint, and pushing colour, mark and form around until the painting forms and I am left with the finished project. I think I did the same with the house, but with tables, chairs, rugs and lights instead of paint. I feel like my house is a like a 3D version of my paintings.
I didn’t realise you lived surrounded by your art works…
[Laughs] It’s not normally like this. At the moment, I’ve converted the house into a gallery to showcase pieces from my upcoming world tour of my works to private collectors from the region. It’s pretty intense. Sometimes my wife and I wonder whether our young daughter is being over-stimulated by it all!
It’d be hard not to be! So you’re encouraging people to come for private viewings?
Yeah. Later this year, I start an 18-year retrospective of my career. It’ll be a three-year tour, visiting 35 cities in 24 countries and showcasing the best (and most famous) pieces from my career up until this point. Because I currently have most of the collection in Dubai, I am hosting private tours for potential buyers.
Avoiding galleries means that I can retain greater control of who buys my work.
Why don’t you just use galleries?
I’ve always been someone who has carved his own career path, by not doing things in the conventional way an artist is expected to work.Avoiding galleries means that I can retain greater control of who buys my work.
Is that important to you?
It sounds a bit naff, but my work is part of my soul. I paint from my subconscious, which means that the work comes from deep within who I am. I want to know who is buying my work; why they are buying it; and what their intensions are. I don’t want people to buy my pieces for investment purposes who will then simply lock them away in a vault – that’s very important to me. I insist on meeting everyone who wants to buy my work in person before I agree to it.
Barack Obama, Bill Gates, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio – you have some rather well-known admirers…
Half the thing about being a painter is about who you sell to. I’d say that is more important than how much your work sells for. I am very particular about who buys my work. I usually insist on visiting their house and seeing my work on the wall, as I said, it is really important to me. Because I see my work as fragments of my soul, if I can meet the person who will be owning that part of my soul, and know that it is in good hands, then it helps fill the void.
Do you ever say “no” to buyers?
Yeah, all the time! I say “no” to about 80 percent of people.
So when they come to meet the artist, they really need to sharpen their game…
Or loosen their game! I’ve had people come to me with briefcases full of cash, and 99 percent of the time I say no. Buying a painting is a two-way thing. It’s as much to do with the viewer as it is the artist. I don’t see myself as owning the work. I see it as borrowing a moment from Universal Consciousness, and I’ve created something with it before returning it.
Before you mentioned that you paint from the subconscious. What do you mean by that?
In simple terms, it means that I paint while I’m in a trance. Before I paint I get my mind into a meditative state. I do that by essentially staring at a blank canvas for hours and hours until my mind submits to a deep meditative state called “theta”. Now normally, you shouldn’t be able to create in a state of theta – because the whole point of meditation is to surrender – but for some reason I am able to paint in theta. People have even done studies on me.
How many hours of meditation are we talking about here?
It varies. Several hours. It used to take me days and weeks to reach that state, but as I’ve grown older I am able to get there quicker.
Okay, you’re in theta, then what?
I will only start painting when I feel that every mark I make is perfect. By that I don’t mean perfection as “Look at me, I’m amazing!” but rather that my mind is in a state where there is no such thing as “wrong”. Then, I will see an emotion that I want to depict. It can take any shape, colour or form, and then it starts to evolve with lines and words and colours – only I’m not seeing the colours, but some sort of code – a bit like something from The Matrix. When I’m in this state, I am linking to my subconscious. I can keep painting like this for 28 or 30 hours, non-stop without water or food, and I will keep painting until, BANG, I drop out of that state. Then the next time I work on the piece I have to get back into the same mind-set.
Sometimes I’ll come out of the trance and look at something I’ve just done and be, like, “Woah! Did I do that?”
Wow. That sounds exhausting. So, you don’t know what you’re going to paint?
Not the finished product, no. I paint pure emotion. When I am working on a project I spend a lot of time before hand feeding my subconscious with books, music, films, or life experiences. If there is nothing in the subconscious then all that will happen is nothingness and it will start fighting with itself. Sometimes I’ll come out of the trance and look at something I’ve just done and be, like, “Woah! Did I do that?” I won’t have a clue!
You often lend your talents to charitable purposes, most notably in the creation of your famous Universal Child collection. What is the story behind that?
About a decade ago I spent five years visiting the 42 refugee camps on the world. It was a big long harrowing journey, which started in Darfur. I was asked by George Clooney, who was making a film called Sand and Sorrow, to create a painting that would depict the genocide and monstrosities happening in Darfur [the refugee camp in South Sudan]. It was a mind-blowing experience. I remember being in a helicopter flying 5,000ft above the desert and I turned to George and said “wow, the sand is really red here.” He then turned to me and said: “No Sacha, that’s blood.”
This was a very difficult project for me, because a lot of my work is about life affirmation – about entering the magical world and making magic out of the mundane. I kept thinking how was I going to get something positive out of something so horrific?
On the ground, we encountered the aftermath of the worst displays of humanity, soldiers slaughtering whole villages and shooting children. Those who were left alive were led to flee. We went into the desert to try round up the survivors, and found several groups of people broken, near death, passed-out holding hands.
That is harrowing…
What happened next?
That was when everything changed for me. The fact that they were holding hands showed me that no matter how horrific life is, love and human connection will always win. That’s what I wanted to capture.
Back at the camps, the rescued children had shut down. They had no trust in humanity anymore and had become like zombies. So, I laid out massive canvasses in the centre of the camp, and for weeks just started painting. No one took any notice, but after a few weeks people started to come over to see what I was doing. I didn’t talk to anyone, I just wanted to engage people through art, paint and positive energy. After three weeks nearly three hundred children were painting on the canvass with me and you could actually see and feel their spirit lift and rise, regaining a bit of trust in humanity.
That was the first step, and then I went around to the 42 refugee camps of the world, and I painted a piece for each country I visited. Then at the very end of the journey I painted Universal Child: The Realisation, which was an accumulation of the five-year journey. It still remains one of the most important and emotional pieces I’ve ever done. My hope is that when you look at it from a distance you journey into the piece – it is infinite like the universe, like the soul.
That is an incredible story.
It was a long, but ultimately, hugely important journey.
Are all your works for sale?
When I first started out, my dad told me to keep the best pieces from each of my collections. I was a bit unsure at the time. I mean, when I was 19 I was offered about Dhs280,000 for a painting, and I really wanted to sell it. That was a lot of money to a 19-year-old! But my dad convinced me not to sell it, and I’m grateful he did. Ever since then I have kept the best few pieces from all my collections and by doing that it has allowed me to put together this retrospective of my work with the best three pieces of all of my collections.
Did you always want to be an artist?
No. I actually wanted to be a cricketer! I used to play professionally, playing alongside former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga, but I got to a stage where the professional world of cricket wasn’t for me – much to my father’s disappointment – and I turned to art full-time when I was 22.
That seems to have been the right move! Aren’t you currently working on a cricketing project?
I am actually. I was commissioned to create a piece to celebrate Indian cricket captain Virat Kholi’s incredible feat of scoring a record number of double centuries this year. I will create a piece that commemorates that it will include the hand prints of Kholi and a huge number of cricketing greats, like Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Sunil Gavaskar and Wasim Akram. It will then be auctioned off and the proceeds will go to UNICEF.
It’s a busy year for you then. Earlier this year you were commissioned to produce a live piece of work at the Global Teacher Prize. How did that go?
It is the rawest piece I have ever painted. The event was under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and I was asked to create a piece that would capture the spirit of what it means to be a good global citizen. I had no clue how I was going to make it happen and, on top of that, it was going to be live-streamed on camera! I ended up painting at the event for 27 consecutive hours, and it was one of the hardest pieces I’ve done as I kept jolting in-and-out of the meditative state.
Do you think that was because of the added pressure of being filmed?
I don’t know. Maybe subconsciously, yes. I found it hard to stay in a deep meditative state and because of that I felt that the piece keep veering off into an awful direction. But every time I thought I’d ruined it, I would tap back into the meditative state and it would go somewhere better – richer, more layered, more complex. Ultimately, I what I wanted to do was to try and depict the soul of the earth – which is no easy task!
The piece is done on raw emotion without a thought process. I’m happy with how it came out, because the cycle of struggle and successes I encountered while painting it are kind of a metaphor for the earth. Things are created and are then destroyed, before eventually being rebuilt into something more complex – and that, to me, is the soul of the earth.