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The Art of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi

As we speak, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son and would-be heir to Moammar Gadhafi, is on the run and still vowing not to surrender to the rebels in Libya. Under very different circumstances in 2002, he staged an exhibition of his art in London. More recent exhibitions of his work were shown in Moscow and Brazil in 2010.

Guardian art critic Jonathon Jones wrote about the 2002 show, which was titled “The Desert Is Not Silent,” and recently wrote about it again to bring the story up to date.

I spoke to Jones earlier this week on the phone from London:

A transcript is after the jump.

View pictures or Saif al-Islam Gadhafi’s art:

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. As we speak, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son and would-be heir to Moammar Gadhafi, is on the run and still vowing to hold on to power. But in 2002, he staged an exhibition of his art in London in very different circumstances. Jonathon Jones wrote about it for the Guardian of London, and this week he wrote about it again and brought the story up to date. He joins us now on the phone from London. Welcome to you.

JONATHAN JONES: Hi, hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: Take us back to this 2002 exhibition. What were the circumstances? What was it?

JONATHAN JONES: Well, it’s funny, because I only started to remember it when I was reminded by an editor. I’d forgotten I’d even written a review of it, and then it all came flooding back to me. But they got a marquee in Kensington Gardens, which is one of the most prestigious parks in London, and it was a big, very expensive, kind of tented building like you have for arts fairs, and they put on a show, which involved historically — obviously the Gadhafi family had access to whatever they wanted I suppose from Libya’s national collection — so they had some antiquities in it. Libya obviously has Roman antiquities, but basically the high point was a large exhibition of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi’s paintings.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did they look like?

JONATHAN JONES: Well, there was one that was a painting of the sculpture that has been seen in Tripoli — the fist crushing an airplane. There was a painted version of that. There was a representation of Colonel Gadhafi himself as an eagle. There was a lot of stuff about the desert, it was kind of a sentimental kind of kitsch involving roses and flowers and kind of desert imagery. I couldn’t help thinking that it was, you know, you think about Adolph Hitler being an artist. That is probably the most notorious modern case. But there is actually this thing going back to ancient Roman times, of Nero, who supposed fiddled while Rome burned and who thought of himself as some kind of artist. People actually listened to his poetry recitals. Caligula was the same. Tiberius had this sordid villa in Capri that was decorated with horrible pornographic art and terrible things went on there. So that kind of association of artistic kitsch and dictatorship goes right back to ancient Rome. And this exhibition that was put on in London in 2002, and actually toured to other cities as well around the world, to me had that sense of self delusion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Saif, before all these recent events, he had been considered a fairly, I guess, Westernized fellow. He went to the London School of Economics, there was talk about him as even possibly the reformer in the family.

JONATHAN JONES: Yeah. I mean, that’s right. The art exhibition was before he went to London School of Economics. One of the reasons I decided to write about it was I realized in a way how naive I was reviewing it. I mean, it seems to be incredibly obvious. Back in 2002 — and this not funny, obviously, given the violence and terror that’s been inflicted in Libya — but at the time, you know, had fun with it, saying, it’s a terrible exhibition and it clearly seems to me to belong to this tradition of terrible art by dictators and tyrants. I didn’t really see the bigger picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your current piece, you’re suggesting the real story after the fact is a kind of collusion of the rest of the world. You say, the exhibition was an ugly display of power, not in Libya but in London.

JONATHAN JONES: Exactly. Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, there is the background of at the time an attempt to improve relations with Libya at that particular time, right?

JONATHAN JONES: Yeah, and obviously in retrospect that looks extremely baffling. And there was a rationale, I suppose, with the war on terror, and I guess that this particular horrible tyrant seemed suddenly more attractive than other horrible tyrants. But really, given what had happened at Lockerbie and all of that, the Lockerbie bombing, there was no reason to whitewash these people. And what I was thinking is that we now look at the images from Tripoli — the works of art and grotesque, over-the-top interior decor and statues of mermaids and things that have been revealed that Libyans are now queuing up to gawp at apparently — that stuff, of course, you see it, yes, this is what you expect when you loot Gadhafi’s palaces. But in fact it was there already, it was never hidden. If art has any meaning at all, then perhaps the art exhibition in 2002 was a sort of screaming red light that nothing had changed in Libya, there was no sanity to this family. It seems staggering. You know, why did the exhibition take place? Why was it allowed to happen in Kensington Gardens? Who gave the go ahead for that?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, a fascinating sidelight to ongoing events in Libya. Jonathon Jones from London, thanks so much.

JONATHAN JONES: Thank you.

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