Dubai: Meet the men sending artworks to Moon

Four like-minded and successful people come together for a common cause — the art of giving back and saving our planet — to power a hitherto unknown concept of curation of art in space


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:26 PM

Last updated: Fri 11 Mar 2022, 11:47 AM

Dubai emerged as the centre of art explosion around the turn of the new millennium following the emirate’s breathtaking growth as a financial hub and the ease of doing business. Consider this, in 2010, Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller — the founder and president of her eponymous art gallery, Leila Heller, which specialises in representing artists from the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Turkey — was having lunch with Sheikha Lulu Al Sabah at the Americano in Chelsea, London, when she told the Kuwaiti art dealer that she was looking for a gallery space in Dubai.

In November 2015, the expatriate Iranian art dealer’s cherished dream was realised after partnering with James Khazaei on this ambitious project.

The 14,000 square-foot outpost at Alserkal Avenue has evolved into Dubai’s pioneering cultural district. It is not only the largest gallery in Alserkal Avenue — but, perhaps, the largest in the Arabian Gulf and South Asia. Heller’s dream came true partly because of James Khazaei, a well-known collector of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Western arts.

Khazaei says he got interested in arts because of his father, who was an antique collector and a real estate developer. Khazaei, a management graduate and an investment banker in 2002, had come to Dubai on a two-week vacation. But destiny had other plans. In a simple twist of fate, he happened to meet Mohamed Alabbar — the founder of Emaar Properties.

Alabbar, who is known for his fine eye for talent, convinced Khazaei to take up a leadership role with Emaar Properties while the Dubai-based realty group had embarked on an ambitious journey to develop Downtown, including iconic properties such as The Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa. “I had a wonderful time with Emaar. I learnt a lot from Mr Alabbar. He’s a true visionary,” says Khazaei.

The Briton’s passion for sales and leasing made him land a lucrative offer from Abu Dhabi-based realty group, Aldar Properties, in 2005. He had a remarkable stint with the company till 2009, where he oversaw marquee projects, such as the sales and development of Yas Island and Marina, Al Raha beach luxury properties, Ferrari World and Warner Bros, an indoor theme park.

Khazaei’s love for all things art — especially those belonging to the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe — made him come up with the concept of Selenian amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Selanian is a UAE-based startup that specialises in curation of art in space. The startup’s goal is to be the gateway portal to space for physical and digital art assets, through artworks, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), tokenisation and Metaverse.

He has roped in Sacha Jafri — a contemporary British artist, who is based in Dubai and is known for creating the world’s largest painting on canvas Journey of Humanity last year and a prominent philanthropist — his London-based friend, art collector and businessman Shahram Yazdani and Pavlo Tanasyuk, the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Spacebit, a British privately held company developing space robotics technology for lunar and planetary missions since 2014, as the other co-founders of Selanian.

“We have a group of four like-minded people, who believe in the art of giving. Selanian is an alternative way of interpreting the moon. It’s also about the art of giving back to the community and society,” says Khazaei.

“Our primary objective is to bring artists from across the globe onto one platform. We’d like it to emerge as a forum to educate humanity at large,” he adds. Art of giving is at the core of Selanian’s goal. Khazaei says he has been devoting 75 per cent of his time to the project over the past 12 months.

So, what was the inspiration behind the path-breaking concept? “The Covid-19-enforced lockdown restrictions made me more conscious of our surroundings and the ecosystem. Mental health became a major challenge during those hard times,” he recalls.

“We witnessed the world in disarray and as much as we currently do for humanity in the world, if we are true to ourselves, we realise that we are only scratching the surface. Selanian is a unique concept whose time has come,” says Jafri, while endorsing Khazaei’s initiative.

The artist’s upcoming — and, perhaps, the most ambitious project — is a heart-shaped artwork, titled We Rise Together — with the Light of the Moon will be sent to the earth’s only satellite later this year in the first-ever art mission.

“The byte-size heart will contain two intertwined human figures. It was a labour of love as we had to undergo as many as 40 iterations, and Pavlo (Tanasyuk) can testify that,” says Jafri, who has used an aerospace aluminium-gold plate as his canvas for the exquisite artwork.

“We’ve racked our brains over several sessions. Selanian’s mission statement is simple. Our goal is to make a difference to our planet. We’re aware that only a few technologies can go to the moon. So, we took a long and hard look and discussed among ourselves how this can become a reality. Firstly, we thought, is this achievable? Then, can we make an impact on humanity? Or can we leave a legacy? Once we were convinced about our capabilities, we marched ahead,” says Khazaei.

Once the artwork reaches the moon, the landing will become a world heritage landmark that will be eternally preserved. Khazaei says the cutting-edge project also exudes human touch. “There’s more to a space art race as others try to follow suit. We are pushing the envelope by integrating art with space technology and there are some exciting projects to be announced later in the year on other missions that we have secured.”

Jafri’s mission — in collaboration with Spacebit, Astrobotic, and Nasa, through its commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) initiative — has a head start, despite swirling talks about a space race. “A percentage of the funds raised from the moon mission will go to different charities that focus on equality, sustainability, education, and health. The painted hearts, dubbed by Jafri as ‘Moonheart NFTs,’ will be released to the world as NFTs or digital assets, commemorating each stage of the mission,” adds Khazaei.

Selanian, which is riding high on spreading the good cheer about love and empathy, hopes to come up trumps in the mission possible to the moon.

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