When visiting the Dubai home of British artist Sacha Jafri – whose work can be found in the collections of Barack Obama, Bill Gates and George Clooney, among many others – it is hard to tell where his personal space ends and the public-viewing gallery begins.
His living room, which opens into exhibition rooms, is like a child’s playhouse. There are heart-shaped rugs on the floor, colourful armchairs on which sit throw pillows with images of animals and Disney-characters, and toys are strewn across the room.
It is chaotic yet inviting. It feels like you are walking into a 3-D painting of the artist, whose canvases convey his inward reflection through abstract expressionism.
Clocks of all shapes and sizes, photos of his 2-year-old daughter, and his framed written musings and raw sketches fill every gap on the walls he has painted himself. Hundreds of paint rollers with splashes of colour on them are stacked under the glass that sits atop a large table in his garden.
“I’ve been told that my daughter is overly stimulated at home,” the 41-year-old painter says with a laugh. “I rubbish it – the greatest gift we were given was our childhood and the sense of possibility that comes with it. Yet it is the first thing we are taught to forget, and are told not to be childlike but more as adults. My work brings it back to being a child and expressing my purest emotions.”
After creating home galleries in London and New York, Jafri decided to created a similar vibe at his town house on Palm Jumeirah, which he has been working on for the past two years.
“I’ve designed this entire place on a napkin, not on any design software. Then I got in a couple of builders from Al Quoz to build the pool and have done the rest of it myself. I like the imperfection to it,” Jafri says of the home in which he lives with his wife, daughter and dog.
At the age of 27, Jafri was the youngest artist to have a 10-year retrospective of his work tour major art institutions around the world. This year, before embarking on a touring retrospective of works from the past 18 years, he will open up his Dubai home gallery for the first time. It houses 30 of the exhibition’s paintings, which can be viewed by appointment until May 20.
His retrospective will feature 48 large-scale oil-on-canvas works from his past 12 collections. Between June and August, he will also host private open-house sessions at his property in London.
“So there will be an interesting genealogy of my work from the beginning to the end, and you will be able to see my progression and how life and everything I have experienced affected my work,” he says.
Jafri will give a personal tour to art collectors by appointment.
“I know every single client who owns my paintings – it never seems like they have left me,” he says. “I’ve been painting for 24 years and I realised art is very delicate. If it isn’t treated right, it turns into nothing.
“You need a personal relationship with people so that you can allow someone to come into your space and view your work in silence, on their own and not in a commercial way.”
Jafri’s pieces sell for between Dh900,000 and Dh2.7 million. Other famous collectors who own his work include Richard Branson, Leonardo Di Caprio, Ben Kingsley and prominent figures in the UAE.
Even so, Jafri says he does not part with works, which can take him more than two years to complete, lightly.
“I am very particular about who owns it,” says the artist whose first clients were the late British filmmaker Bryan Forbes, the director of The Stepford Wives, pop star Madonna and actor Kevin Spacey.
“I’ve had situations where people have come in with suitcases of cash and I’ve refused,” he says. “Art, when done right, expresses humanity, and if I think the person is buying it for pure investment, then I won’t sell.”
Jafri’s career began as a teenager when, as he struggled in the classroom with dyslexia, his school, Eton College, helped him channel his brilliance into art.
“I didn’t really know how to communicate with people, and then painting changed my life,” he says. “I had found my voice and my language.”
He honed his creativity with fine-arts courses at Oxford University and the Goethe Institute – Royal Academy. His work is not static – each collection reflects his state of mind at the time he put paint to canvas.
“I only paint pure emotion, so each collection is different because my emotions have kept changing in these [past] 18 years,” he says.
“There have been ups and down: wonderful moments of light, deep dark moments. There was the birth of my baby girl, and then the death of my grandmother.”
He says these experiences fuel the subconscious and become the pool in which he dips his brushes.
“I get into a meditative state of concentration and stare at one point on the canvas for an hour,” he says.
“I start seeing shapes, colours and code that evolves on the canvas organically. I can paint for 26 hours straight, without water and food, which worries my wife sometimes.”
Jafri’s earlier works were more figurative and loose, progressing to a more constructivist style with bold perspective lines. In one of his best-known paintings, Kafka’s Waiting Room, Jafri illustrates the rigidity of a bureaucratic society with grid lines. It hangs in his living room.
He says the paintings from the upcoming collection were inspired by the ideas of literary writers Gabriel García Márquez and Paulo Coelho, and filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick.
“It’s like creating a transitional world. A reality we know and recognise, but with a magical twist.”
But the passion that currently comes through in his paintings came about after a trip to Darfur with George Clooney and filmmaker Paul Freedman to paint a piece for the launch of the 2007 film Sand and Sorrow – a documentary about Sudan.
“We were flying together in a private plane and I looked down at the soil and said: ‘Oh, that’s really red soil’. George corrects me and says: ‘That is blood’. That trip was…life changing because I witnessed inhumanity like no other. It changed me as a human being.”
Since then, Jafri has collaborated with, and donated more than US$18 million (Dh66 million) to, charities around the world.
He also recently took part in a live painting session at the Dubai-based Global Education and Skills Forum.
• A piece to celebrate the appointment of Virat Kohli as the captain of the Indian cricket team and breaking the sequential double-century record in world cricket. The painting will be unveiled in London in June.
• Majid Al Futtaim and Christie’s hired him to create an installation to support the Start Foundation for special needs children, abandoned orphans and refugees. The Universe of the Child installation, and four other paintings, raised more than US$2 million (Dh7m) for charity.
• The League Managers Association commissioned a work to celebrate Alex Ferguson’s 25th anniversary as the manager of English Premier League football team, Manchester United. The painting features landmarks and icons of the city of Manchester, plus images of Ferguson’s greatest moments and memories. The canvas was resold last year for $1.8m.
• Britain’s prince Charles asked the artist to paint 21 of the most influential living Muslims to raise money for the prince’s Mosaic Initiative.
• Richard Branson called on Jafri to produce a canvas celebrating the launch of his first Virgin Galactic space mission.
• A work created to mark the 2012 London Olympics is set on the Union Jack and depicts the English capital’s landmarks, monuments and the Olympic Stadium, plus handprints of all gold medallists from the past 50 years.
To book a private viewing at Sacha Jafri’s home art gallery, email [email protected]