x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Man with a commission

The artist Sacha Jafri has been commissioned by Prince Charles to paint portraits of the 14 most influential living Muslims.

Jafri is a very 21st-century artist, full of passion for the spiritual side of his work and the worthiness of his charitable endeavours,
Jafri is a very 21st-century artist, full of passion for the spiritual side of his work and the worthiness of his charitable endeavours,

There are some artists who find it hard to articulate their thoughts and emotions: they speak through their work. Sacha Jafri is not one of them. It may have been childhood dyslexia that first drew him to visual forms of communication, but these days he has no difficulty finding the words to express himself. When we meet on Dubai's Palm Jumeirah, where the British artist will be based for some time while pursuing an art project he calls The Middle East Before Oil, one hint of a question or comment is enough to unleash a torrent of words. He is a man of ambition, and he has plenty to say.

There is no shortage of material to discuss. Jafri is only 32, but he has already had a retrospective world tour - the youngest living artist to do so - which kicked off in Dubai last year, and has painted works for Madonna, the Beckhams and a series of charitable foundations including George Clooney's Darfur campaign Blood on Our Hands. The world of Jafri is full of thrilling opportunities, and they all seem to come at once: no sooner has Prince Charles commissioned him to paint portraits of the 14 most influential living Muslims to raise money for the prince's Mosaic initiative, than the 21st Century Leaders charity (www.whateverittakes.org) appoints him as a resident artist and a leader. In this he joins the likes of Clooney (naturally), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Princess Alia Hussein of Jordan and Sir Paul McCartney, all of whom have provided artworks that are used on merchandise, such as Vans trainers and Eastpak backpacks. He is understandably excited.

"I've basically been appointed as what they call their in-house artist. They're doing various projects around the world. They might call me or [the other in-house artist] Romero Britto and they'll say, look, we're doing this with Al Gore or whatever, and we'd like you to create something we can auction or can create posters from or whatever. I'll also be doing my two designs, along with those other guys - your Paul McCartneys, your Bowies, your Clooneys, your Susan Sarandons, and me and Damien Hirst and people like that, and politicians and royal families and there's a whole group of people. Prince Charles is on there.

"And in November, I will be painting live with -" As he rattles on, Jafri realises he's said a little more than he's supposed to. "I'd better not say who, but basically the greatest jazz musician who ever lived will be performing live and I will be transposing his music, live on to a canvas, and they'll have about 40 of these 21st-century leaders, all those boys in the same room, plus the money boys to try and generate some money. Er... I can't tell you where. And it's in the Middle East. And you can say November."

Jafri is a very 21st-century artist, full of passion for the spiritual side of his work and the worthiness of his charitable endeavours, yet very much a performer, with his live paintings and his rock-star-style world tour. He is, too, unintentionally - and by necessity - in thrall to the celebrity culture that permeates our lives. Patrons demand other famous patrons to justify their investment in an artist; auction houses require long pedigrees and illustrious collectors to attract buyers' interest; much of the press won't write about an artist without a list of glamorous fans to entice the readers; and there is nothing like a celebrity endorsement to persuade those readers to support a cause.

For Jafri, that's a dichotomy he takes in his stride. "I'm not interested in the celebrity stuff," he insists. "I'm not interested in hanging out with Clooney; I'm not interested in that life. If I was I'd be in a bit of trouble trying to achieve what I want to achieve. Meeting them is interesting, and it's an honour - some of these guys are amazing individuals. But if I focus on my work, I hope that will always eclipse any of this celebrity chat that goes on, because they're not going to remember that I hung out with George Clooney: they're going to remember what I created."

And what Jafri creates is huge, complex, layered oil paintings that are, very deliberately, a long way from the works that the previous generation of British artists - the Young British Artists (YBAs) whose highly contrived markets boosted the artist-as-star issue that now affects Jafri. "I'm slightly outspoken about this," he warns, before starting on one of his favourite subjects. "We had a lot of rubbish in the Nineties: the shock art, the YBAs. Hirst represents the Nineties, he really does, but his time is over. Simple. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is, Damien. The shock art movement in the Nineties relied on the intelligence, the guile and the cunning of Saatchi, Joplin, Gagosian: powerful art dealers who basically realised that they play a market and a people and a populace.

"The average Joe on the street, he goes to the Tate Modern and he comes out thinking, 'So what did I get out of that? Nothing. I don't understand any of it, it's all above my head'. But it's not above his head: it's just not that clever. Anyone who overly theorises about art doesn't understand art. It's not about that. It's about emotion and feeling, and any human being should be able to walk into a gallery and have an opinion on something and say how it makes them feel." Jafri's response has been to employ his superb draughtsmanship, honed during 30 hours of life-drawing a week at Oxford University's Ruskin College, to try to reinvent art, bringing back the life and the skill that he felt had gone missing in the perpetual postmodern irony of the Nineties.

"When you're doing 30 hours a week of life-drawing and anatomy, you're not learning to draw; you're learning to see. You're staring at something intently, and you're actually seeing what the line really does. Seeing is about keeping your soul alive and keeping your spirit sharp, and noticing things and feeling things. First you need to learn to see, then you need to learn to draw. And then once you can draw you can start playing around. All the great artists that we know, even though they might have ended up doing abstract blotches, could draw brilliantly. Tracey Emin is a fantastic draughtsman: most people don't know that."

It seems he's touched on something, because these days, he is the first port of call for commissions of works that need the sort of universal appeal that will bring in the big funds. Prince Charles' Mosaic charity, which is also supported by Princess Badiya bint El Hassan of Jordan, is all about supporting and encouraging young British Muslims who feel disenfranchised and ostracised in the post-terrorism climate, and among his initiatives is Jafri's commission for portraits of 14 great living Muslims.

"They've used me for a few reasons," says Jafri. "Prince Charles knows my work, which is helpful. And he likes my work, because we're from the same school of thought: that drawing's important, spirit is important, soul is important. But he also knows that my work's quite popular at the moment, and is building in popularity, and he might as well use it while he can. But also it's because of my name, Jafri. I am a Sayyid; my name is from a very old Persian dynasty. So it makes sense that if you're using an artist, that lineage is there."

More important than the artist, Jafri would argue, is the people he is painting. "There are some really interesting people in there, from Mohammed Ali to Sheikha Lubna Khalid Sultan Al Qasimi, and also Muslims that people don't even know are Muslims: Zinedine Zidane, for instance, who people don't realise is an Algerian Muslim. Then each painting will also take an aspect of the Qu'ran, because they realised that so many people do not understand that the Qu'ran has been misinterpreted so many times, and this is one of the major problems: misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Qu'ran and the religion of Islam. It's very exciting, a very powerful way of doing things."

This is a huge project, which he expects to take many months, so does Jafri worry that these big-name commissions can detract from his artistic concerns? "The thing is," he argues, "it sounds like I do a lot of commissions, because if you Google me or whatever, you tend to get a lot of Beckham, Tandulkah, George Clooney, so these stick in people's minds. But I'm doing one commission a year, at the most, and you know what, it's usually quite an honour. If Clooney approaches you to do something, it's a big honour, and you get to meet Don Cheadle, who's done so much for Rwanda, for Darfur.

"But I don't find it restrictive because I will never let them dictate what I can and can't do. "I am very ambitious as an artist and I want to be remembered for centuries. Three hundred years later I want to be like Van Gogh, I want to be like Kandinsky. I'm not here to touch the world for a bit and then go and be forgotten. I'm so focused on that, to be honest, and every two years I'll do a collection and I believe it's better than the last, richer than the last, more layered than the last."

Jafri's next attempt to create that ultimate collection is the reason he is in Dubai: he is currently working on his Middle East Before Oil exhibition that will involve trips around the region, from Iraq to Jordan, to try to understand the changes that have taken place since oil became such a valuable commodity. "The idea is that I capture the essence, the spirit of that place, how the people relate to the ground, the ground that they're born in. You don't look at all the iconic stuff, the camels and the buildings: you take all this away and you say 'what's left?' The people and the land and the history and their sense of history. It's like a documentation of history, you know? It's like a moment and that will be fascinating."

gchamp@thenational.ae