As It Happens

World's largest painting — the size of 10 tennis courts — sells for $78M

Sacha Jafri is "still a bit overwhelmed" after someone bought his last year's work — a massive, laboriously made painting — for $78 million.

Sacha Jafri's painting, The Journey of Humanity, based on artwork created by children during the pandemic

Artist Sacha Jafri — seen here at Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — has just sold the world's largest painting for $70 million. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

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Sacha Jafri is "still a bit overwhelmed" after someone bought his last year's work — a massive, laboriously made painting — for $78 million.

Guinness World Records considers the piece, called The Journey of Humanity, to be the world's largest canvas painting, measuring 1,595.76 square metres — about the size of 10 tennis courts, says Jafri. 

The artist split the painting into 70 individual pieces to sell. But he says he was moved to learn there was one buyer who was so inspired by the artwork, he decided to take the whole lot.

"He showed his love of the painting and he was proud to do it. That meant so much to me," Jafri told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The British artist was working in Dubai when the world went into lockdown at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jafri stands on his record-breaking painting, which he created at Atlantis Palm hotel in Dubai. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

He thought about the themes of connection and isolation, and decided to put a call out to children around the world, through ministries and schools, to share their experiences with him through art. His painting is based on the stories he saw in their work.

"We got millions of artworks from children [in] over 140 countries … from every walk of life … from orphans to refugees to the wealthy," Jafri said.

A visitor stares at fragments The Journey of Humanity in Dubai on Feb. 25. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

"I pasted a lot of their artwork into these huge circular portals that I created in the painting. So the idea was you'd have The Journey of Humanity — my painting — and that's the world as we know it. But I wanted to lead us to a better world through these circular portals, through the hearts, minds and souls of our children."

The images the kids sent Jafri were mostly dealing with how the pandemic was changing their lives, he said.

"They were just exposing how they felt. It was just truth. There was pain. There was fear. There was a feeling of disconnection … frustration," he said. "But then [there was] a huge amount of hope and love."

For the next eight months, Jafri worked on the painting at the Atlantis Palm hotel in Dubai, where his canvas was just able to fit inside the ballroom.

Once finished, he planned to sell the work to fund health, sanitation and education initiatives for children living in poverty.

"I believe that our childhood is our greatest gift," he said. "And, sadly, it's the first thing we're taught or encouraged to move on from … As an adult, we should use all our power inside us to keep the child alive forever."

Jafri says he injured his back working on his record-breaking painting. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

Jafri painted for 20 hours a day over the course of eight months to create the work. He used 1,065 paint brushes and 6,300 litres of paint. 

He covered every inch of the painting all on his own, but not without the impact of carrying all those paint cans from one end of the canvas to the other, and then stretching and bending enough for his brush to reach each spot.

"I did a lot of damage to my body," he said. "I paint from a very sort of deep, meditative state. So I'm in a trance. I don't realize the damage I'm doing. 

"I actually had to have [an] emergency operation on my back. Both my two vertebrae came out completely because the cushioning had gone. So they had to do an emergency operation and put a pole through my spine. My pelvis went out of line on both axes and my heels actually just disconnected from my feet."

The gigantic painting is based on the artwork of children all over the world. (Guiseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

But he kept going, and people around him noticed. One of them ended up being the buyer, Andre Abdoune, a French national living in Dubai who has a cryptocurrency business.

"This guy just kept coming in and looking at it … [he] broke down in tears," Jafri said. "I could see he was having a very spiritual connection."

Abdoune visited Jafri five days in a row, for several hours each day. He thought it would be a "travesty" to split the painting into 70 pieces in order to raise funds, Jafri said.

And then they ran out of things to talk about, and Jafri said he'd just let him stay there to observe the painting.

When the auction took place on Monday, Jafri aimed to sell his artwork in batches for $30 million US to raise money for charities including UNICEF, UNESCO, Global Gift Foundation and Dubai Cares. 

People called in from Miami, Mexico, and L.A., as well as Switzerland, China, India and Russia to bid on the pieces. There weren't many bids from the Middle East, but Jafri noticed one person in the auction house who he recognized.

"This guy was in the room and I noticed it was him. I think his first bid was at $50 mill. And I was like, 'Whoa, OK, this could be interesting … And it just kept firing up and up."

Jafri says he's grateful to the buyer, who plans to build a museum to house the work.

Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from Reuters. Interview producer by John McGill.

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