Central London is a cosmopolitan place these days, but a traditional Bedouin tent in Kensington Gardens is still out of the ordinary. Last week, though, passersby were enjoying the temporary installation, reclining on overstuffed cushions as they took in the view of the Albert Memorial, the ornate neo-gothic folly erected by Queen Victoria in honor of her late husband. A surreal scene, perhaps, but no more so than some of the works of art on display in an adjoining marquee. Thirty-seven canvases by Seif al Islam Gaddafi, 30, the second son of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, form the bulk of a collection of Libyan art and antiquities that has already been exhibited in Berlin and Paris and will travel next to Rome.
The free show is sponsored by the deep-pocketed Gaddafi International Foundation for Charitable Associations, headed by the artist himself. His works are an eclectic, even bizarre mix of styles. "Sometimes I have realism and collage and surrealism together in one painting," says Gaddafi, who cites Salvador Dalí as an inspiration. "It's complex." One painting, The Challenge, includes a piece of shrapnel from the 1986 U.S. air strikes on Tripoli that killed his two-year-old adopted sister and 40 other people. The canvas also features his father's distinctive visage and three cross-toting figures. Gaddafi is coyly evasive about what message the work is meant to convey. "It's about challenge and confrontation, but I will not say exactly what it means because it's my secret." Another work, The Intifada, showing a raised fist clutching a rock, is easier to decipher. Most of the paintings, though, like two depictions of tigers Gaddafi himself has a couple as pets are uncontroversial. Whether they have much artistic merit is another matter, and Gaddafi responds with a modest "No" when asked if he thinks he is any good.
If he has not quite mastered the medium, it may be because Gaddafi, who was trained as an architect and an engineer, found his artistic calling just seven years ago and paints only in his rare free time. "I have a lot of activities," he says. "I'm head of the foundation, I have a fishing company and I take care of my family because my father, who is busy all the time, appointed me his deputy." Though he acts as an unofficial envoy for the regime and is often mentioned as a potential successor to his 60-year-old father, Gaddafi insists his official duties do not extend to the realm of politics. He is about to begin a three-year Ph.D. course in governance at the London School of Economics, but he says he does not aspire to the job of "The Leader," as he sometimes refers to his father. Unmarried and, he says, unattached "We Muslims are not allowed to have girlfriends" his focus for the moment is burnishing his county's image, which was dented by Libyan involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. "It's incorrect to say that we were isolated and are trying to come back to the international community. We were very influential in the Middle East and are now leading the African Union. We are the richest country in the region." An oil-rich country in Africa, an Arab nation intent on mending relations with the West. A country, it seems, of sometimes surreal combinations like Seif Gaddafi's art.
TIME: You say that, despite what has been widely reported, you are not being groomed to succeed your father?
Gaddafi: That's just Western journalists making stories. They think we're like other Arabs and that we will follow the same path, but they're wrong.
TIME: What path will Libya follow?
TIME: So will there be elections in Libya?
Gaddafi: Why not? Q. When?
Gaddafi: We are working on this now.
TIME: So it's possible that your father could be voted out of office?
Gaddafi: No, my father will not participate.
TIME: Doesn't the fact that you will be studying governance mean that you are interested in governing someday?
Gaddafi: No. You study governance not just to govern but to teach how to govern. Politics is part of my life and my environment, but to be a politician or minister is different.
TIME: Will you be teaching your father?
Gaddafi: No. This is dangerous [laughs]. No comment.
TIME: But you're already taking a public role, as with regard to Iraq.
Gaddafi: I am planning to go to Iraq to discuss POWs from the Gulf War. We are also warning Western countries it's a serious mistake to attack Iraq.