Gaddafi son used his paintings to promote Libyan culture

GENEVA (Reuters) - Saif al-Islam, the son of Muammar Gaddafi trying to negotiate safe passage to the International Criminal Court from a refuge in the Sahara, was once on a mission to put Libya on the cultural map -- by exhibiting his own paintings.

Saif al-Islam, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, gestures as he speaks to reporters in Tripoli in this August 23, 2011 file photo. (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The late Libyan leader’s would-be heir launched a touring exhibition of Libyan antiquities and contemporary art called “The Desert Is Not Silent” in London’s upmarket Kensington in 2002 which was dominated by his paintings.

The show was scheduled to go to Paris, Geneva, Berlin, Tokyo, Madrid, Sao Paulo and Moscow.

“Not only do we buy weapons and sell gas and oil, but we have culture, art and history,” Saif al-Islam, who studied at the London School of Economics and portrayed himself as a patron of the arts, said in a statement at the time.

A website set up by Saif al-Islam’s Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation to promote the exhibition no longer works.

Reuters Television interviewed Saif al-Islam in September 2003 in a Geneva gallery that was hosting the exhibition, entitled “The Desert Is Not Silent”.

The catalog showed his colorful works including dreamlike paintings of the desert, some with the specter of his father’s defiant face or the Bedouin tents favored by the flamboyant strongman.

Several convey political messages, including one bearing a banner in Arabic reading “The Struggle”; another, entitled “Intifada”, showing a clenched fist; and a third, “War”, depicting NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 during an apocalyptic storm.

“The Challenge”, a painting from the period of the embargo against Libya for its alleged sponsorship of international terrorism, shows a stern Muammar Gaddafi gazing down from the skies at the “arrogant Allies” bearing wooden crosses.

In the catalog, Saif al-Islam also revealed a softer side.

“Beautiful Rose”, a long-stemmed red rose painted on fabric, was dedicated to “someone who counted in the artist’s life, who brought him joyous colors”.

His works were not well received by art critics.

Jonathan Jones, art critic for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, said the paintings “just end up confirming all the old stereotypes about dictators, or dictators’ sons”.

“Ever since Nero there has been a depressing connection between bad art and megalomaniac regimes: Hitler the opera lover, architect and painter; Stalin the poet,” Jones wrote in August this year as he went back to his review from 2002.

“The exhibition was an ugly display of power, not in Libya, but in London ... the fact of their being vaunted as worthwhile art in a fancy exhibition spoke of hideous self-delusion and imposture.”

Saif al-Islam, a jetsetting socialite, was once seen by many governments as the acceptable, Western-friendly face of Libya.

The ICC prosecutor said on Friday that his office was in “informal contact” with Saif al-Islam, who was believed to be hiding near the Niger-Libya border. The court wants him on charges of crimes against humanity.

Reporting by Vincent Fribault; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay