-The Esquire 100 - Sacha Jafri
Hailed as one of the world’s most important living artists, the Dubai-based British painter specialises in ‘magical realism’.
Famed for his ability to create via tapping into his subconscious, his works have gained global fame and collectors including Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson, and Barack Obama.
This is the story behind one of his most celebrated collections: Universal Child:
About a decade ago I spent five years visiting the 42 refugee camps in the world. It was a long harrowing journey. 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 left 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 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 with 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. I then visited the other refugee camps where I painted a piece in each country. At the very end of the journey, I painted ‘Universal Child: The Realisation’, a combination of the five-year journey. It still remains one of the most important pieces I’ve ever done.