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Sat 14 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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Brush with success

Meet Sacha Jafri, the youngest living artist to ever be awarded a 10-year retrospective exhibition.

Sacha Jafri, the youngest living artist to ever be awarded a 10-year retrospective exhibition, talks to Arabian Business about becoming an artist, sleeping in police cells and why the economic slowdown is a good thing for the Gulf's art scene.

There are times when Sacha Jafri sounds as if he just arrived from Dubai's financial district.

"My value is actually going to go up, because it's going to get rid of fifty or sixty percent of artists out there in circulation," he says of the international recession that has sent asset valuations plummeting. Most of the time, however, it's obvious that a career in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) would probably have been short-lived for the 31-year old artist.

I started at the very, very top and worked myself down. Somewhere halfway down the list someone decided to give me a go.

"I don't really invest my money, I use my money to buy time. That's all I want, I just want time to paint my next collection. Investing money can give you some major headaches," he says.

Good thing that he's been earning plenty of it, then. Jafri's paintings regularly fetch between GBP75,000 ($104,000) and GBP300,000 ($416,000), with recent works going for as much as $900,000. Clients include Kevin Spacey, Bill Gates and Monaco's Prince Albert.

Jafri, who only produces a collection every two years or so, claims the economic downturn hasn't really affected his business. A collection may now need two months to sell out rather than two weeks.

"The people it's affecting is the auction houses, because they have huge overheads and a thousand artists, and only about twenty of them are performing," he says.

Jafri's exceptional circumstances reflect an exceptional career.

This year he became the youngest living artist in the history of art to be offered an official museum-based 10-year retrospective. Recently, he was commissioned by the Prince of Wales to paint the 16 most influential Muslims of the last century, including HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, King Abdullah of Jordan and Imran Khan.

Jafri has been based in Dubai for three months now to work on his collection ‘The Middle East Before Oil', a project that will take him to most of the GCC countries, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. He will be here for another six months.

Much like the bankers in DIFC, he values the city's strategic location. "I have decided to base myself in the Middle East because it's in the middle of the world and from there I can get to anywhere I want to."

Many of his clients are from India and China, and it is a good place to be based out of during the world tour of his 10-year retrospective collection, which will be going to 26 cities in 18 countries.

This week he launches Dubai's annual art fair Art Dubai with a live painting for children's charity START.

Jafri claims he didn't think of painting as a vocation until he was about six years into one of the most stellar careers the UK art scene has ever witnessed. But his interest in art can be traced back to his school days.

"I was very, very dyslexic and the best way to relieve that frustration was by doing a lot of creative writing, which was rubbish, but I just had to do it," he says.

"Then I found that in all the subjects there was a right and a wrong, but in art there wasn't. They would look at my work and say: ‘This isn't what we told you to do, but what you've done is quite interesting so just keep doing it.'"

Of course, going to England's prestigious Eton College helped: At age 16 Jafri and another student were given their own art gallery. He is quick to point out that he went to Eton on a cricket scholarship and that it was mostly because he lived nearby, in Windsor, and not because of the status. His parents, French and Indian, are not "those sorts of parents", he explains.

After getting a degree in fine art from Oxford, Jafri worked three different jobs at the same time to produce his first collection, still not thinking of art as a viable career option.

When it was done, he contacted 30 of the country's top galleries, insisting on a solo show. "I started at the very, very top and worked myself down. Somewhere halfway down the list someone decided to give me a go," he says. "By the second day everything had gone, which is unheard of, so it was in all of the press. It was a really big deal."

Jafri used the money he earned to produce his next collection, but still didn't think of himself as an artist - that didn't happen until six years down the line. "I just thought, I'm going do this until it doesn't work anymore, and then I'll worry about what I'm going to do next."

Jafri insists he paints from his subconscious and travelling has become his way of filling that space with interesting content.

By staring at a blank canvas for up to four hours he falls into a meditative state, he says. In that state he then starts to see and feel things in a different way.But feeding the subconscious does not always include clocking up air miles. He once travelled from Ireland to Siberia and back, armed with nothing more than GBP5 ($6.90), a guitar, pastel chalks, roller blades and a note book.

A former skier in what is now called the X Games, Jafri knew how to use a pair of rollerblades. And so he began his journey by doing rollerblade stunts and putting his hat out.

In Italy, he played the guitar until a restaurant owner asked him how much money he would need to go away and never come back. "Because I cannot play the guitar at all. I'm terrible," the painter admits, laughing.

In Pisa he struck a deal with another restaurant owner, who would give him a pizza every night in exchange for a drawing, Jafri remembers.

"You make friends. Money is this very strange thing - if you take it away amazing things happen. I made a lot of friends as I went and I got put up everywhere for free," he says.

The accommodation wasn't always glamorous, though; Jafri spent two nights in a police cell in Pisa, after his landlord at the time had a "massive fight" with his girlfriend, which ended in the police station. "They dealt with them Italian-style, gave them a slap and then sent them home," he says.

Having no desire to go back, he asked the policemen if he could stay there for the night.

In Dubai, Jafri is working on his new collection, but also trying to get some rest. "I hit a wall about a year ago," he says.

"It's no coincidence that a lot of artists that make it don't last above the age of 40. They burn out. The ten-year retrospective actually gives me a rest."

So what's so tiring about being one of the best-paid painters in the world?

"Every year and a half you are faced with fourteen blank canvases," he says.

"It has to be magical, it has to be special, it has to be a one off, it has to be something that touches people's souls forever. And that's quite a lot of pressure."

In Dubai, the art scene is too commercial and the lack of an art museum is keeping the city from becoming a global hub for artists, he says.

But he lauds the recently launched Tashkeel centre for artists, and points out that some of the best art in the world is available to see, for anyone willing to take a trip to Sharjah Art Museum.

Among the artists to have shown their work there is world renowned photographer Andreas Gursky.

"They've got one of the world's six top museums of modern art, showing the greatest art you'll see. You'll see the same art in the Guggenheim, in the MET in New York and the Tate Modern in London," he says. One problem: few people, including the media, seem to know about it.

"The press don't even know it exists. Art editors don't even know it exists. That is unbelievable," he says.

The region's hotels could provide a boost to the local art scene by buying and displaying good work, but have yet to do so, he notes.

The result: an art scene that is too dominated by gallerists trying to grow their businesses in a short period of time.

"Art is the one thing you cannot create quickly. It can't connect with human beings quickly. That was the mistake of shock art in England in the 1990s, it was a complete disaster. It doesn't engage you, it doesn't engage the soul."

To that end, the current state of the international economy could be a good thing for the Gulf's artists.

"This economic meltdown is a very good thing for this region because it will force people to slow down. It will force them to assess what they've done and who they are," Jafri says.

Art Dubai, the city's annual contemporary art fair, takes place from March 18 to 21 at Madinat Jumeirah.