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Thu 28 Feb 2008 05:26 PM

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Prince charming

Artist Sacha Jafri talks Magical Realism and celebrity shoulder-rubbing with Catherine Jarvie.

Artist Sacha Jafri has just launched the first leg of an international 10-year retrospective in Dubai. He talks Magical Realism and celebrity shoulder-rubbing with Catherine Jarvie.

It would be fair to say that UK-based artist Sacha Jafri, painter to the stars and all-round success story, leads a charmed life. This is the man, after all, who at the tender age of 30 has just kicked off the first leg of a two-year inter- national exhibition tour.

Opening in Dubai with a private view and Christie's-led charity auction a fortnight ago, Jafri's latest travelling show, running simultaneously at the Bastakiya's Majlis Gallery and the Grand Hyatt Dubai until March 2, is a 10-year retrospective (the youngest artist ever to have one, apparently) that will take in Asia, the US and Europe before wending its merry way to London for what will surely be a star-studded homecoming (he counts the likes of actor Kevin Spacey and David Beckham among his collectors and collaborators).

In fact, so blessed does Jafri's life appear, that it would be easy to be cynical about a career trajectory that has so far had only one setting (that would be turbo-charged, full-steam-ahead), and which seems to owe not a small part of its success to the beguiling charisma of the artist himself - as anyone who saw him working what can only be described as a difficult room at the recent Grand Hyatt auction will attest. Faced with a late start and dwindling audience numbers, Jafri took over from the auctioneer to deliver a heartfelt pitch that ensured over US$280,000 was raised on the night for HRH Princess Haya's Al Noor Centre, dedicated to special needs children in India and the Middle East.

Jafri is certainly no stranger to the commercial machine and, as even the quickest glance at his website, with its name-checks and nods to the great and the good, reveals, a master at self-promotion (then again, what truly successful living artist isn't these days?). But when it comes to his work, the buck - or bucks, as his work regularly fetches around US$200,000 a time - stops firmly at his studio door.

Even the shortest conversation with Jafri reveals a man who is clearly passionate about his work. Characterised by a loose, easy style that owes much to the great artists of 20th century Modern art - from Kandinsky to De Kooning, with a large nod to the likes of Mondrian and free-form genius Jackson Pollock - Jafri's work sets out to capture a sense of wonder in the world around us.

The artist talks freely of ‘childlike innocence' and the importance of canvases containing the emotional ‘fingerprint' of the artist. Influenced by so-called Magical Realist writers and filmmakers, from Garcia Marquez to Tim Burton (whose Big Fish and Edward Scissorhands movies are singled out for special praise), for him it's all about the finding - then creating - the heart and soul of a feeling, an otherwise intangible moment in time.

Diagnosed as dyslexic when he was a child, Jafri always struggled with the ‘three R's' at school, but in the art room he was finally able to find his voice. A natural sportsman, cricket briefly seduced him into another possible career (he played for England's Under 19s as a teenager), but when it became clear that he would have to take a back seat to players better than he was, he ‘lost interest'.

‘When you're captain, you're this amazing strategist,' he explains. ‘You can push your pawns [the other players] about and create a real plan. And then suddenly you're not captain and you're the pawn.' He laughs, but Time Out suspects this episode reveals a lot about Jafri's drive and ambition; it's clear that being top of the tree is important to him.

It might also go some way to explain why there seem to be two, very different, Sacha Jafris at work. The first is the artist who spends his life absorbing experience and sensations - all the better to be later translated into his work - while the other plays the fame card with such dexterity.

To be fair, Jafri's celebrity-backed artistic pursuits tend to be in the aid of charity. Over the years he has raised almost three million dollars for good causes, from UNICEF and The Prince's Trust (Prince Charles's UK-based youth charity) to profile-raising endorsements for various sporting events.

‘I don't want to do it too often because it can dissipate my energies and [become] the focus of what people think I'm about,' Jafri notes. ‘But,' he continues, ‘modern-day genocide in Darfur and Rwanda - these are awful, awful things. It's not a big ask, is it, to spend a few hours in your studio and meet some incredible people along the way.

Put that way, it's not a big ask at all. And, as Jafri says as our interview draws to a close, ‘You only have one life. If that life gets to blend serious artistic - and moral - pursuit with celebrity shoulder-rubbing, well, why not?'

Sacha Jafri's retrospective is at the Majlis Gallery, Bastakiya, and the Grand Hyatt Dubai, until March 2.

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