People are calling it the modern-day Sistine Chapel, but the fact of the matter is, the 17,000 square-foot painting did not take British-born, Dubai-based artist and philanthropist, Sacha Jafri, four years to finish. It took him seven months. From March until September of 2020, while the whole world was in a global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jafri quarantined himself, his wife, and his daughter in the Atlantis, The Palm as the hotel’s only guests with one goal in mind: to create the largest painting in the world on canvas, to be sold at auction in order to raise funds that would help the world’s most vulnerable children whose lives had been impacted by the global pandemic.
Jafri took his brilliant idea to His Excellency Dr. Tariq Al Gurg, Chief Executive Officer at Dubai Cares, who immediately felt the need to make this vision a reality. After presenting the idea to His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al Nahyan, Cabinet Member, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, the project was approved within one day and fell under Sheikh Nahyan’s own patronage, as the wheels to create history were set into motion.
First came the call to children for their artwork, drawings, collages, sketches — anything they wanted to put on paper to express themselves. From 140 countries around the world came 60,000 pieces of individual art, all submitted by children. The pain, the heartache, the loneliness, the gratitude, the joy, the confusion – it was all there for Jafri as he took it in and began to see the story that needed to be told.
“These artworks were telling us, I think, about the state of the world,” Jafri tells Savoir Flair in a private interview before the unveiling. “They were sending me their emotions and expressions from 140 countries, which is basically the world. All the countries of Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia… orphans, refugees, and then these very, very privileged children. It was an entire dichotomy.”
“A lot of them were expressing pain, fear, love, happiness, and gratitude, because ironically they were seeing their parents more. They were actually connecting with their family more in their core. A lot of pictures of love, connection, families together. It was very emotional. And I think that the world was telling us what we needed through the children. We needed to connect. We needed to reconnect.”
Jafri began to unify the voices of the children, using their images as the first layer of the canvas to become the soul, both literally and metaphorically, of the world. He worked for 20 hours a day, fashioning a journey through humanity.
“Nothing was planned. Nothing was sketched. I just started putting paint on canvas,” he replies when we ask him if the children’s work influenced what the painting would become. In other words, this enormous painting was literally born from the voices of children.
As Jafri began to describe this ‘Journey of Humanity’ through the eyes of a child panel by panel, we began to see that this piece of art was more than just a means to raise money for children. It was the painting that we, as humanity, needed for us to express all the turmoil we felt with what was happening in our world.
It starts with the soul of the earth and then moves to the disconnect between us and the soul of the earth. On the next panel, we see the pain of humanity. But then right after that pain, is the love of the child. “The only love that can heal the world is the love of the child,” Jafri explains. “The greatest gift we are ever given in life is the gift of childhood, and it’s the first thing we are encouraged to move off from. The love of the child heals the world and reconnects us back to the soul of the earth.”
We only have hope when we are together.
On the next panel, we find an enormous heart filled with the drawings of children symbolizing that childlike purity of love. Following that, is a beautiful image of a pregnant mother – “the love and nurture of the mother” – and inside her stomach, again, is the children’s artwork. After the mother, is the “guidance and protection of the father.” In the following panels, both mother and father guide their child through the mountains of life ensuring that the child feels brave, safe, and loved.
“When a child feels safe, loved, and brave,” says Jafri, “the child is able to express themselves, live, and make their dreams come true. They grow their wings and fly off into our solar system – just like with the Hope Probe – making their dreams come true. They live their life. The painting is about giving hope. But we only have hope when we are together.”
The final two panels are about Nirvana, reaching enlightenment, and about peace. On the final panel, we see a human face looking at himself in a mirror, where he sees a child reflected back in his face. It is to represent that he has found peace because he is connected to his inner child.
Getting up close and personal with the canvas, we are privileged to see the children’s artwork, and it is these works that make this canvas one of the most moving pieces of art we’ve ever seen. A child’s rendering of a family with no faces peeks through a smattering of paint, while a masked woman with depths of worry in her carefully crafted eyes looks at you almost like a modern – yet masked – Mona Lisa. An empty city sits stagnant, alone, and dead with a child’s scrawl scribbled across the top, saying ‘Keep Distance.’ A rainbow-colored heart brings a sense of innocence. Each piece a part of that soul, united in conveying one moment of our human history.
It is all one giant story of humanity, made from thousands of individual stories. So we asked the artist if there were any drawings or paintings by the children that spoke to him deeply.
“There were so many,” he says, grabbing his beard. “My favorite painting was done by a three or four-year-old, living in the slums of India, and she has nothing. Literally nothing. Just like a family of 20 living in a tin house from maybe here to that camera there, all on top of each other. Washing their clothes in the same water they drink from, in the same water they wash their plates and whatever in, and the same water the cow is excreting in. So, really the bottom of the poverty line. And she sent me this picture of the world and a child hugging the world. That was amazing. She had nothing.”
With one story, we are not only brought to tears, but we are gifted a spark of that hope that Jafri was trying to express.