Meet the artist moving millions to help children in need

British painter Sacha Jafri on the sale of his $62m artwork for charity, and his plan to help bring healthcare, education, and internet access to impoverished children worldwide.

As Covid-19 swept the globe in March 2020, countries from Pakistan to New Zealand shut their borders and instructed residents to remain at home. In Dubai, British-born artist Sacha Jafri was experiencing lockdown of a different sort, confined to a ballroom in the city’s Atlantis hotel.

It was not, the 44-year-old says, the year he had planned. “2020 was meant to be the highlight of my career. I had my 18-year retrospective with the Saatchi Gallery, with an expected world tour taking in 35 cities and 28 countries; I was doing a painting for the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, and to launch Expo for Dubai,” he tells Philanthropy Age. “And then, Covid hit.”

Instead, over seven months to September, and for 20 hours a day, Jafri could be found bent at the waist, painting a 17,000 sq ft canvas stretched across the ballroom floor. The process used 1,065 brushes and 6,300 litres of paint, and left Jafri in need of an operation to repair the damage to his vertebrae and pelvis.

But the result was the world’s largest art canvas painting; the riotously colourful The Journey of Humanity, which fetched a staggering $62m at a livestreamed charity auction in Dubai in March. The sum – more than double the original target – places the artwork among the most expensive paintings sold at auction by a living artist, and obliterated his own auction record.

Jafri’s decision to gift the proceeds to charity represents a similar leap up the ranks of GCC donors, marking one of the largest single charitable gifts of the year to date. Four entities will benefit from the money; the education nonprofit Dubai Cares, the UN children’s agency UNICEF; UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency; and the Spain-based Global Gift Foundation.

The funding will be used to support children affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the aim of widening access to healthcare, education and sanitation, and tackling digital poverty.

“I’m blown away by the amount of money that was raised,” Jafri says. “I believe art has one role, and that’s to uplift the soul. That’s what I felt this painting did and people connected with it. The money we’ve raised, the amount we can do with it, is incredible – and that makes me so happy."

The buyer of the painting, Andre Abdoune, a French crypto-currency entrepreneur who resides in Dubai, said he hoped the money would aid those worst-hit by Covid-19.

“I come from a poor family, and I knew at times how it feels to have nothing to eat, but at least I had the love of my parents, schooling, and support,” he told AFP. “We have to react, so if I can bring my little piece in the puzzle, I'm happy.”

Snapshot: anchor partner Dubai Cares

Dubai Cares is a UAE-based nonprofit working to providing children and young people in developing countries with access to quality education. Founded by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the organisation has reached 20 million beneficiaries across 60 countries, with a particular focus on education in emergencies and protracted humanitarian crises.

In 2020, Dubai Cares reported it had disbursed $36m towards global education programmes, including the launch of 15 initiatives in areas including early childhood education, teacher training and school feeding.

The nonprofit is the anchor partner in Jafri’s initiative, and will disburse the $62m in funding both across its own projects, and to UNICEF, UNESCO and the Global Gift Foundation. The organisation's appeal lay both in its scale, and the breadth of its portfolio in low-income communities, Jafri says.

“I see Dubai Cares as the primary player in educating the poor around the world,” he says. “They can help with access to communities, and they also have very strong relationships with the UN, with the IMF and the World Bank; all agencies that we’ll need to have the kind of impact we want.”

Outside of art circles, Jafri is not widely known for his philanthropy. Yet prior to the sale of The Journey of Humanity, he had raised more than $60m through the sale of one-off artworks for good causes, gifting the proceeds to organisations ranging from the privately-held Varkey Foundation to Mosaic, an initiative set up by the Prince of Wales to support youth in deprived communities.

In April, he raised a further $4.2m through the sale of an oil-on-canvas artwork in support of the UAE’s 100 Million Meals initiative, a campaign to deliver food aid to 30 countries during Ramadan. Also on offer at the auction were the paint-daubed clothes Jafri had worn while creating his record-breaking artwork, which were snapped up for $450,000, alongside pieces from Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Henri Matisse.

This giving correlates with Jafri’s general distrust of the art world. He is less than complimentary about what he sees as the manipulations of dealers, galleries and auction houses to dictate the market value of art, something he describes as “nonsense; just smoke and mirrors”.

“My goal has always been to work outside the art world, because it’s not something I can invest in,” explains the artist, who divides his time between Dubai, London and New York. “I don’t believe in its structure.”

Instead, Jafri’s approach is to deal directly with those seeking to commission or buy his paintings – among his collectors are the former US President Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio – a model that has not only let him skirt the machinations of the art world, but also build in a way to give back.

“I've worked with charities for 25 years and I’ve decided that rather than giving 50 per cent of my sales to a gallery, I will create things or create relationships with charities,” he says. “I donate all the money that we achieve from creating these artworks to the charities, and that enables me to feed back into humanity and to continue my life as an artist.”

“I’ve spent 25 years of my life meeting these children. So many of them have the will to change their life, but not the opportunity.”

Admittedly, the sum fetched by The Journey of Humanity has brought Jafri’s philanthropy to a new level. In the absence of his own foundation – “Why do I need a foundation? It makes more sense to just raise money and give it to existing charities,” – the $62m will be stewarded by Dubai Cares, which will route the distribution of funds to its projects and Jafri’s other chosen partners.

Full details of how the money will be spent have not yet been released. However, Jafri says it will be invested in giving impoverished children access to healthcare, sanitation and education, while leveraging the networks of his beneficiary organisations for reach and impact. Early ideas include a plan for creating up to 5,000 ‘hubs’ in low-income communities to provide children with online learning, food aid, clean water, and medical care including vaccinations in a single setting.

A portion of the money will also be given to the Giga project, an initiative led by UNICEF and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to connect every school in the world to the internet. The project, which has previously received $2.5m from Dubai Cares, aims to close the digital divide and give all children uninterrupted access to learning – a goal that received fresh impetus in the wake of last year’s wave of Covid-19-driven school closures. 

“I see the biggest split at the moment as being between those with the internet, and those without,” says Jafri. “This project aims to get all communities online, ranging from the favelas in South America to the townships of South Africa; to the refugee camps of Africa – communities where children have no chance to change their life, because they don’t have access to education.”

Funding will also go to support UNESCO’s efforts to prepare and gather support for a global declaration for connectivity in education. The declaration, which is set to be unveiled during Expo 2020 Dubai, seeks to make digital learning worldwide more equitable – something Jafri believes could be catalytic in tackling global poverty and social exclusion.

“I’ve spent 25 years of my life meeting these children. So many of them have the will to change their life, but not the opportunity,” he says. “Education empowers these children to change the world around them. Whatever they achieve, they’ll put back, so all you need is five success stories from each community and you can change that corner of the world.”

The Global Gift Foundation, Jafri’s fourth named beneficiary, said funding would be used to continue its support for Harmony House, a nonprofit that works with street children and youth in India; an orphanage in Vietnam, and its own daycare centre in Spain, for children with additional needs.

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Jafri and Andre Abdoune, the French crypto-currency entrepreneur who bought The Journey of Humanity for $62m.

Jafri’s initial plan with The Journey of Humanity was to split the painting into segments, to be sold as smaller lots in a series of auctions – including one at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Abdoune, says Jafri, now hopes to build a bespoke museum in Dubai to house the 70-segment artwork and share it with the public.

The pair are also in talks to potentially hold workshops for refugee children, and those with special needs. “We’ll bring them from all over the world – we’ll have a dormitory, and kitchens - and they can paint with me.”

More broadly, Jafri hopes the artwork will be a trigger for a wider movement.

Before the pandemic, he felt the world “had become filled with static. We were no longer communicating.” Then: “Covid came, and the static left our world and there was silence. And I felt I could create something that could tap into that silence and evoke real societal change.

“Still, I didn’t expect the painting to do what it did,” he adds. “It connected people across the planet. It inspired communities, foundations, charities and schools to look at how they might be able to change their own environment.

“Now, I think the message has become, if one guy can spend seven months, 20 hours a day creating this painting, imagine what we might be able to do it we all worked together.” - PA