Artists and Autocrats: A Love Story

by Mostafa Heddaya on September 5, 2013

The cover of Kanye West & Jay-Z's "Watch The Throne" album looks like it would be at home in any regal court.

The cover of Kanye West & Jay-Z’s “Watch The Throne” album looks like it would be at home in any regal court.

Kanye West, seasoned rap man and unflappable artiste, recently played a $3 million gig for the son of Kazakhstan’s dictator for life. Dennis Rodman is back in North Korea, for the second time this year, to pal around with unrepentant mass-murder Kim Jong-Un. Or, in Rodman’s words: “I’m going to North Korea to meet my friend Kim … It’s a friendly gesture.”

Salvador Dali and Generalissimo Francisco Franco (1944—)


Salvador Dali and Franco (image via

The cozy relationship between the painter and Generalissimo Franco was not among the many ethical faults famously memorialized by George Orwell’s incisive vitriol in his “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali.” But his unnecessary collaboration with the Spanish military boss paid him untold career dividends, and was no doubt related to much of Orwell’s contempt. Of course, none of these faults have had much of an impact on the artist’s long term reputation, at least as far as the collections of major museums and college dorm walls are concerned.

James Brown, Celia Cruz, and B.B. King for Mobutu Sese Seko (1974)


James Brown (image via

In the heyday of his fame, James Brown et al. played at Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire 74 festival. The event was intended as a sort of “Black Woodstock” and memorialized in the 2008 film Soul Power.

Andy Warhol and Mohamed Reza Pahlavi

andy w iran art

Farah Ashraf Pahlavi (1978), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1977), and Farah Diba Pahlavi (1977), fittingly enough displayed at the booth of New York’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery at Art Abu Dhabi. (image via

The Shah of Iran commissioned portraits from Andy Warhol — for himself and his wife in 1977, followed by his daughter, Farah Ashraf Pahlavi, in 1978. Warhol mentions the Iranian royals numerous times in his posthumously published Diaries, and he wasn’t the only American artist to feed the Pahlavi need for art and Western culture. 1977 was also the year major demonstrations against his rule in Iran began, which culminated in the 1979 revolution that ushered in the present regime. The 1970s were a mixed blessing.

Lionel Richie, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Usher, 50 Cent, Nelly Furtado for Colonel Qaddafi & Family (2006—)

Muammar Gaddafi, Leader of the Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, sits reading in the Plenary Hall of the United Nations (UN) building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 12th African Union (AU) Summit

Muammar Gaddafi (image via Wikimedia)

longtime favorite of these types of roundups, the Qaddafi family was prolific in signing on international superstars for its various parties. When violence broke out in Libya in 2011, Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey later pledged to donate their proceeds of $1 million each to charity. Beyoncé also claimed to have donated the proceeds from her performance to Haiti relief. Lionel Richie, who was the only one to have performed within the nation itself (the others were contracted to perform for the Qaddafi family at foreign hotels) did not, apparently, cleanse himself of the proceeds.

Rem Koolhaas and the Chinese State (2003)


Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing (image via

In 2003, Rem Koolhaas revealed the design for his CCTV building in Beijing, which houses what amounts to the broadcast propaganda arm of the Chinese state. A 2011 New York Times article notes that he “he was pilloried by Western journalists for glorifying a propaganda organ of the Chinese government,” while deadpanning, a few paragraphs later, that “No building has since done more to burnish the reputation of Beijing as a city of the future than Koolhaas’s.” So, mission accomplished!

Zaha Hadid and Heydar Aliyev (2013)

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (image via Zaha Hadid and © Zaha Hadid Architects)

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (image via Zaha Hadid and © Zaha Hadid Architects)

The superstar architect was retained by Ilham Aliyev to build a cultural center-cum-symbolic mausoleum for his father, the late Azerbaijani dictator Heydar Aliyev. The center, which was just completed, was hailed by Complex as “express[ing] a sense of flowing unity that reminds us of calming waves.” Before the project started, it was reported that Zaha Hadid laid flowers on Heydar Aliyev’s grave, a former KGB strongman with a galling human rights record. Commenting on the occasion, Alain de Botton noted that architects have long had a “fondness for strongmen.”

This is a living list, so please contribute any notable pairings we have missed below.

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  • sayshoo

    This is a fascinating topic!

    How about Leni Riefenstahl’s film work in support of Hitler’s Nazi regime (she directed Triumph of the Will in 1935)? Adding Hitler to this list would add more than a few more layers of complexity and might turn into somewhat of a digression. Beyond looking at artists who collaborated or even simply visited with autocrats during their lifetime, you could look at artists who indirectly profited from the promotion of their art by the Nazis (versus those, like Picasso and Braques, who were completely disregarded by the Nazis and whose work was even burned as a result). You could also look at the number of dealers and museum directors who profited from a booming art market engineered by the Nazi takeover of Europe. Again…probably a giant digression, but an interesting one nonetheless.

  • Justin R

    By and large artists have been and still remain lap dogs for the rich… Dictators are probably just more interesting to hang out with than bankers.

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