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Not even a gifted amateur

Visionaries are rare in this workaday world, so we should all be grateful for Saif al-Islam Gadaffi, architect, philanthropist and Libya’s leading artist, at least according to the exhibition The Desert Is Not Silent, organised by his own foundation, that runs in the Albert Memorial Gardens, Kensington, London, until August 10.

His other claim to fame, his father, appears floating in the sky, in sunglasses, in a painting entitled The Challenge. Christians, dressed in penitents’ robes with pointy hats, carry crosses on an empty, desolate beach. Beyond burns the sun. Over them looms the spectral figure of an eagle — and overlooking everything, Libya’s leader, daddy, Colonel Gadaffi.

The catalogue explains that Saif painted this during the international embargo on Libya, and that it refers to Gadaffi’s defeat of ”the powers of the new crusade”. Libya was as strong as a rock ”against which the arrogance of the neo-crusaders was broken”. In the new world order, Gadaffi became ”the unique eagle”.

This is the unique eagle’s only appearance in 35 paintings by Saif — although in Intifada, a clenched fist clutches a piece of glowing rubble said to represent wreckage from the United States air attack on the Gadaffi family compound.

Yet Saif’s vision extends further than politics, encompassing love, what it is to be an artist and every other imaginable cliché. His paintings are extensively, I would say exhaustively, represented in the exhibition and the achievement is, in its way, breathtaking. Look at his tribute to romanticism, Bella Rosa. A real rose, red and with a straight stem, is fixed to a canvas next to a painting of the same rose.

Love, as the artist comments, ”is a gift from God to all men”, and this is a memento of a very special person in his life. There is an even greater triumph of banality in Arab Horse. A lovely horse, glowing white, gallops towards us over fuzzy green grass in front of a brown sky. The painting remarkably reproduces in oils the look, quality and sophistication of a picture done on a pavement in chalk.

With such achievements to his name when he is only 30, it is easy to see why Saif dominates his nation’s art from ancient times to today. The catalogue has several crawling essays on his work, particularly the series The Desert Is Not Silent, which gives the exhibition its name. In these paintings, imitations of cave drawing (without the dexterity of the real thing) mix with muggy abstractions and Jackson Pollock-like paint splashes.

It would be a genuine joy to be able to say that Saif is a good artist, or even an artist. Cultural links with Libya are obviously desirable, and the Gadaffi International Foundation for Charitable Associations, of which he is chairperson, has certainly poured money and rare museum pieces into this show.

It must have cost a packet to buy space in London’s Albert Memorial Gardens, Kensington, where the exhibition is housed in a purpose-built marquee. The prehistoric ancient Phoenician, Greek and Roman art from the National Museum in Tripoli is superb. It should also be said that the other contemporary artists in the show are at least competent.

But it is Saif who is the star here, taking up great tracts of wall space with paintings that 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; Tony Blair the rock guitarist.

Colonel Gadaffi’s son may be an able cultural ambassador but as a painter he is not even a gifted amateur; his sentimentality is only exceeded by his technical incapacity. All those yellow suns, red roses and white horses don’t even succeed in being eccentric or intense — just incredibly undistinguished. Colonel Gadaffi is certainly a doting father to encourage his son’s artistic career. — Â

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