Can Sacha Jafri pull off the sale of the century with the 'world’s largest painting’?

The British artist’s record-breaking piece could fetch millions at auction for charity (and reinforce his reputation for excess)

The double ballroom at Atlantis, The Palm, is a tumult of over-the-top touches. Ridged pillars along the walls lead to a recessed ceiling decorated in gilded stucco fans; Art Deco patterns alternate with swirling wallpaper and diamond patterning over the door’s arches.

The room typically holds 2,000 people, but for almost six months, it was home to only one: painter Sacha Jafri. From April until last week, the British artist used the Dubai ballroom to make what he claims is the "world's largest painting", measuring 1,800 square metres and spanning more than two football fields placed end to end.

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Anyone can paint for five or six years. But to be a professional artist for 25 years, which is what I've done, you have to have to ... constantly be zeitgeisty

Jafri hopes to raise $30 million (Dh110m) by auctioning off the artwork, titled The Journey of Humanity, at a gala dinner this winter at the Atlantis.

The sale will continue Jafri’s string of superlatives: he hopes it will become, in terms of audience engagement, the largest auction ever held. The money will be split equally among four charities: Dubai Cares, Unicef, Unesco and the Global Gift Foundation. It will be the crowning achievement for a man who hobnobs with celebrities, royalty and tech tycoons, and who has raised $60m, he says, for charity over the course of his 20-odd-year career. 

Jafri is a fixture on the charity circuit, acting as a long-time ambassador for the Global Gift Foundation, which is run by Maria Bravo and Eva Longoria. His work has been auctioned to benefit the Start Foundation in Dubai, La Pegasus Polo Centre in northern India and the mental health initiative Heads Together, run by the UK’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, among other causes. His collectors are starrier than most artists could ever dream of.

Jafri and Rita Ora. Courtesy the artist

According to his bio, they include former US president Barack Obama, members of the British royal family, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Paul McCartney, David Beckham, George Clooney and Longoria herself.

His bio also boasts that he has been named “Humanitarian of the Year” as well as “World Artist of the Year” – the latter, twice. These accolades seem almost absurd for an art world in which standards of judgment are privately held. Indeed, for all his success at galas, Jafri is not a well-known name in the realm of museums, fairs and biennials. But Jafri’s profile isn’t made for art-world distinction. It’s a CV that understands the world to be a shouting contest and, frankly, it’s not wrong.

Though it may add nothing to an artwork to be “the world’s largest”, it might have got you reading this article. And it might, Jafri hopes, bring the dollars in.  

Jafri the romantic

As much as his paintings – energetic abstract swirls of colour, grounded in a steady composition across the canvas – Jafri’s success lies in the persona he has created, of an artist understood in a romantic, even shamanistic way, far removed from contemporary art’s cool Conceptualism. He makes his artworks, he often says, “in a trance”, unaware of what he is creating, and letting his spirituality and his love for humanity and the children, he says, flow through him. 

“I paint from the subconscious,” he tells me. “I visualise what the painting should look like and what it should be about, and then it’s quite a spiritual process. I really tap into what it’s about. I believe that if each brushstroke has pure intentions, something beautiful will happen.”

He leverages this on the charity circuit for maximum effect. “Inspiring”, “incredible” and “special” are how Tamara Zvereff, director of operations for the Global Gift Foundation, describes its charity ambassador to me. Jafri often paints during galas, so that the audience can watch this performance of altruism unfold before their eyes (and then bid on it). Celebrities pitch in, adding their palm prints to his works: Eric Cantona, Katie Piper, Alex Ferguson, Huda Kattan, Ben Stiller, Princess Beatrice are examples. And if the persona – Jafri can work a room – fits the requirements of the charity circuit, so too does his subject matter: concepts such as love, the Earth, the soul.  

The Journey of Humanity represents a narrative of humanity’s disengagement from the natural world and its spiritual elements. He compares it to the Sistine Chapel. Its four sections map out a journey through humanity, nature and maternal and paternal figures, with a final section called “The Soul of the Earth”, which signals the reconciliation between people and the environment.

A picture taken with fisheye lens shows contemporary British artist Sacha Jafri sitting on his record-breaking painting entitled 'The Journey of Humanity' on September 23, 2020, as he speaks to people in the Emirati city of Dubai.  The painting, which measures the size of two football fields, can be seen at a hotel in Dubai, where Jafri spent months of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. 
The gigantic artwork is part of his project 'Humanity Inspired' and with it he hopes to raise 30 million USD to fund health and education initiatives for children living in poverty worldwide. / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE

Along the way, eight so-called “portals” incorporate drawings submitted by children worldwide, collated by Atlantis, The Palm, in an ongoing web appeal that is meant to raise awareness of mental health crises among the young today.

“I believe that the child is our greatest gift,” Jafri says. “And yet sadly it’s the first thing we’re taught in life to forget – or are encouraged to move on from. I believe that we should be doing totally the opposite. We should be keeping the child within us forever … When I was creating this work I felt that the most important thing for a child is to feel safe, loved and brave. And sadly, 90 per cent of children in the world do not feel safe or loved or brave.” 

Jafri the storyteller

Jafri’s predilection for attention-grabbing plaudits and anecdotes also leads him to flirt with hyperbole. The claim of 90 per cent of children feeling unsafe? I ask him where the figure comes from. “I’m getting that statistic from the children I’ve met,” he says. “I went to the 42 refugee camps of the world – spent five years doing that journey. It’s not a statistic that’s out there. It’s a statistic from my own experience.”

His bio contains discreet exaggerations. He often claims to have studied at school with Prince William, for example. But while the second-in-line to the British throne attended the same school as Jafri – Eton College – the five-year age difference between the two means they probably didn't share classes or sporting fixtures. 

Sacha Jafri with American actress Eva Longoria. Jafri has long collaborated with Longoria on her Global Gift Foundation, for which he is an ambassador. Courtesy the artist

Jafri also claims to have raised $60m over the course of his career for charity. This amount is hard to pin down independently because the sales figures of charity auctions are not published, and standards differ from sale to sale. But it’s true that auctions are big money.

From an art market perspective, the spirit of giving can drive an artwork’s price higher than it would regularly fetch. Because artists and galleries typically make a percentage of the sale, the more generous the buyer, the more the artist or gallery makes. Many in the industry, who speak to me off the record, say the charity sector is in need of greater transparency. One easy change would be a fixed fee: an artist would take home a figure – say, $10,000 – regardless of the amount that the work sells for, rather than a percentage.

Other industry insiders point to the amount of money that goes towards the production of these galas, which can easily run into the thousands of dollars, as well as the foundations’ staffing and administration costs. Celebrity ambassadors often receive compensation for their roles in advertising the foundations. That there is no global industry standard means donors on the night are often unaware of which part of the money goes where.

Because of this lack of transparency and the strict laws around fundraising in the UAE, Jafri is partnering with a number of government and international organisations for The Journey of Humanity, which is his largest project to date. (Or, to quote the press release, it is "the largest worldwide social, artistic and philanthropic project in history".)

Partners include Dubai Tourism, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Tolerance and Coexistence, Dubai Cares, Dana Holdings, Dubai Media Office, and Atlantis, The Palm. The hotel will organise the gala at which the painting will be auctioned off, split into 60 separate signed canvases. 

Of the money raised from the sale, 90 per cent will go to Dubai Cares to administer between the four charities. Like many of Jafri’s projects, the money is intended to benefit children, with the specific aim to help close the digital gap: because of lack of access to the internet, children in impoverished countries lag far behind their peers elsewhere in education and health.

Arist Sacha Jafri and Jeff Koons making one of Jafri's hand-printing paintings. Courtesy Sacha Jafri

The auction will also benefit Jafri, who will receive the remaining 10 per cent of money raised to cover his costs. That’s $3m if the sale achieves its $30m target – a figure that does not detract from the good the project will effect, but points to the strength of the income stream available for artists in this lightly regulated industry. 

Jafri maintains that he makes no money from the charity circuit, though he concedes that there is a mutual benefit to his participation. It has introduced him, he says, to a number of major collectors who have later bought his work. He also regards it as motivation, in a synthesis of art-making and charity. 

“As an artist, you need inspiration throughout, otherwise you’re going to hit blocks,” he says. “Anyone can paint for five or six years. But to be a professional artist for 25 years, which is what I’ve done, you have to have constant inspiration points, you have to constantly be evolving your work, you have to constantly be zeitgeisty, you have to be poignant, otherwise you don’t create work and you can’t really survive. I found my best way is through charity.”

A few days ago, Jafri began carting away the accoutrements of his Atlantis studio, which the hotel had donated to him for his use: the paints and paintbrushes, the ladder he climbs up on to get a bird’s-eye view of the work, the canvases themselves and, finally, the layers of flooring that protected the fancy carpet from his paint swirls.

Chairs and tables will soon move back in, and then dress shoes and stilettos, and Jafri will test, once again, how much his artwork can divert to good causes.