Beyond the stars

His art is collected by Hollywood royalty and heads of state, and now, with NASA’s help, his work recently became stratospheric. GMT GCC steps into the fantastical world of Sacha Jafri, the Dubai-based philanthropist painter with his feet still firmly here on Earth.

One of the loveliest things about Dubai is, from time to time, the city gifts you a full circle moment. Take this interview: when I first met Sacha Jafri 16 years ago as a fresh-faced recent arrival to Dubai, I was helping to organise his very first exhibition in the emirate, a 10-year retrospective of his work from 1997 to 2007. It was a rather dynamic affair, with paintings dotted around the ballroom, bar and nightclub of Grand Hyatt Dubai — a perfect match for the equally fresh-faced and hip young artist. Back then, the buzz around the Sacha was ear-splittingly loud, and it was clear that he was going places, but neither of us could have predicted that by the next time we met he would be one of the world’s best-known artists, and would have settled down in Dubai to boot.
Looking back, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The son of a Persian-Indian dad and a French-English mum, London-born Sacha’s cut-glass accent bears the traces of his top-class education at the prestigious Eton College and Oxford University — so of course, of anywhere in the world that would welcome such a mix of cultures, Dubai was the place to receive him with open arms.

Another thing that Dubai likes is dynamism — and that’s something that Sacha has in buckets. His stardust-sprinkled career has seen him hobnobbing not just with common-or-garden celebrities, but also with public figures of enormous global significance. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson all count Sacha Jafri pieces in their collections, as do stars such as George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio — in the world’s most exclusive spaces, Sacha’s voice both artistic and humanitarian looms loud. King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, commissioned Sacha in 2009 to paint 19 portraits of the world’s most influential Muslims for his Mosaic Initiative, and the high-profile projects have just kept coming. Just this year, Sacha’s work went stratospheric — literally — as part of the Peregrine Mission One attempt to land on the Moon. He was intended to be the first artist to officially place a piece of art on the Moon’s surface, and despite the mission ultimately failing to complete a landing, the attempt was still a truly spectacular feat.


So how did he make his name? Sacha’s big break came in the early 2000s when, as a hip young British artist, his Magical Realism style caught the attention of a thespian crowd thanks to actor and gallery owner Michael Caine. Kenneth Branagh, Roger Moore and even Simon Cowell came to view his exhibitions, but it was the sparking of a friendship with filmmaker Guy Richie — who happened to be red-hot property due to his run of hit movies and new marriage to the one and only Madonna — that really propelled Sacha’s work into the spotlight.
“She bought a few paintings, which was quite well publicised at the time, and from there it just kept rolling,” smiles Sacha. “I got quite into the sport world, and got a few big commissions — for David Beckham, Sir Alex Ferguson, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal… Those sort of guys. There was a bit of luck in the beginning, but it was also a case of looking at things differently, concentrating on people, connections, emotions and what I’m creating — what I’m putting out there. I trusted the process, and every now and then something magical would come.”
Indeed, it’s this ability to see things differently, not just in an artistic way but also in terms of business, that really sets Sacha apart. Rather than getting bogged down in the usual artistic route of signing up to a gallery and waiting for things to happen, Sacha carved his own path from the very beginning: “I found my own places to show my work, my own collectors. I did it in a very different and much harder way — but the benefits and the rewards are much richer because I’ve built real relationships that have longevity. I’m in control of my career. I can create something in whatever moment I want and I’m not stuck to anyone’s schedule. As someone for whom human connection is important, it’s not so business-like — it has personality, and it’s fantastic.”
The power of connection is indeed a huge theme for Sacha, both in his work and in his personal life. His focus has long since taken a humanitarian bent, raising more than US$140 million for worldwide charities throughout his career, with the money often going to organisations that support children including collaborations with Dubai Cares, UNICEF and UNESCO. Likewise, with his art having the power to reach the world’s most elusive people, his real-world experiences of visiting refugee camps and working with traumatised children in places such as Darfur carry all the more significance.

Sacha gained global fame outside the art world during the Covid pandemic with his work Journey of Humanity – the world’s largest painting and the third most expensive to ever be sold by a living artist, taking US$62 million at auction which was all donated to children’s charities, put him in the same league as Jeff Koons and David Hockney. And what’s most amazing? That if it weren’t for a particularly caring headteacher, none of this might have happened: “As a child, I really couldn’t make sense of the world in general — the only thing that did make sense was paint,” explains Sacha. “I’d use it as a sort of therapy, I guess, to make sense of things. At school they felt they had a problem with me — the headmaster of Eton called my parents and asked them in to talk about it.
“He said: ‘We have a problem with Sacha — half the teachers think he’s a genius and half think he’s mad.’ But they came up with a plan. They built a portacabin next to the art school, filled with easels, canvases, paint and brushes and gave me a key and a padlock. They told me it was my private space to do as I liked, as long as I was at Chapel at 7am and at every one of my classes, for the rest of my time I had free rein.
“I used to stay painting in there all night, until three or four in the morning. And from there, I went from being at the bottom of the bottom class, to the middle, to the top, to getting into Oxford University and getting a first-class degree. But it was only through painting that everything made sense. Once I had that, I could do well academically too. And that’s what started my journey as a painter really — I wasn’t painting because I wanted to, I was painting because I had a need. It was a necessity.”
Nowadays, even at 47 years old and happily married with a young daughter, that spirit of needing to transmit his emotions still powers Sacha’s work. While we talk about some of his most spectacular and high-profile work — a collection of 50 paintings to celebrate the 50th anniversary of UNESCO that went on tour from the Burj Al Arab’s helipad to Mount Everest and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris is one that stands out, as do the six hand-painted Rolls-Royces Sacha was invited to work on, the company’s only collaboration with an artist, which are now considered the most valuable cars the marque has ever produced — it’s his latest, deeply heartfelt pieces, that are really stoking his passion.

Framed Cop28 Painting ‘Our World Reconnected’

“My works are inspired by human emotion,” shares Sacha, “but it took me a while to realise that where my work is coming from, is when I get in that state of surrender. So I’m in a very deep meditative state. I go into a trance and I connect with something… Up there. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, something beautiful happens. What I’m tapping into is an emotion, and then I’m releasing that singular emotion. It goes on to the canvas as a ball, a nucleus of colour, and then that grows and by the end there’s a narrative that develops out of that emotion. The end result is a very high power, high energy, full colour, layer-rich bomb-like explosion.
“So for my next collection, I’m going to pare that back and look at that the engagement of two human souls. It’s going to be a series of 12 paintings, each depicting an embrace, whether it’s a mother and daughter, a father and son, or a grandfather, granddaughter, grandmother, a husband and wife. It’s about two figures being held tight and connecting in that embrace. And I’m going to sort of strip everything out and just focus on the shape of that connection, what it looks like, how to express it, how you as the viewer can feel it. That’s what I’m excited about, what my head is full of — I can sort of see it. And that’s exciting.”
This year will bring another full circle moment for Sacha — this time around it’ll be his 25-year retrospective which will exhibit at institutions all over the world. But from when we first met while working on his 10-year retrospective until now, notwithstanding the international moves, fame and global significance, not all that much has changed as far as Sacha goes. That same childlike energy and wonder is there, the same urgency to share a moment, a thought, a connection. Perhaps the sense of chaos has dropped away, his urgency and hunger being tempered by calm and maturity — with a few more lines on the face telling the tale. But the twinkle in his eye remains the same. Despite having moved in celebrity circles since the very beginning of his stellar career, it’s clear that what Sacha really values has always persisted: connection. And whether it’s with a Hollywood powerhouse, a world leader, or a child in a desolate camp who’s lost everything — Sacha wants to touch all their hearts, just the same.