The Guy Who Bought the Stephen Harper Nude Painting is a Legend

He fought C-51 with $1 million dollars, and now he's bought the nude painting of our former prime minister for an undisclosed amount.

|
Nov 30 2015, 11:04pm

The infamous nude painting of former prime minister Stephen Harper that sparked a bidding war when it was listed on Kijiji last week has been sold, and the buyer is kind of a legend.

Frederick Ghahramani, a BC-based technology entrepreneur who made headlines in October for his million-dollar contribution in the fight against repealing Bill C-51, is now the owner of the only nude painting of the former Conservative Party leader, according to an email received by VICE from previous owner Danielle Potvin.

The painting was previously listed for $8,800, but news about the painting prompted a bidding war among a myriad of buyers across the globe that included countries like the US and China.

Today, Ghahramani finalized the deal with Potvin for an unspecified amount. We spoke to him over the phone to figure out why he'd want a thing like this.

VICE: I did a little bit of research on you, but maybe in your own words, tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Fred: Technically the word is entrepreneur, but I'm an engineer who's based in Vancouver, BC, and for 15 years or so I've been building companies. Mostly unsuccessfully, but occasionally with some success. I've been in the telecom and software industry in the last 15 years. Probably my biggest company is called AirG. I'm also an angel investor—I invest in various smaller tech companies, and some of them have actually become bigger than AirG.

I'm not a politician, I'm not a politically-involved person, but recently, I've reached I guess what you say is a midlife crisis, and in the last six months I've been paying more attention to the federal political level and I did get involved recently in the C-51 campaign. And I'm continuing to help various groups that are working to repeal that law because it is a pretty draconian non-Canadian law.

I definitely want to touch on C-51 in a little bit, but I first want to ask how you found out about the painting.
I think it was on VICE, actually! (Editor's note: We really wanted someone to buy this for us.) The first time I heard about it was a couple years ago when it made news, and then it kind of disappeared. But when I saw it was for sale, I had to jump at it. I'm actually very delighted that I won the bidding process and you know we beat out groups from China and the US and various parts of the world, and we did promise to keep the painting in Canada for at least the next 10 years. I don't see it leaving the country anytime soon. I'd like to spread it as far and wide as possible and share it at universities and schools or any gallery that wants to take it, because I'd be happy to share it with them. (Editor's note, part two: We have an open wall.)

This guy! Photo via Frederick Ghahramani

That's pretty awesome. What was your reaction when you saw the listing for the painting.
I couldn't believe it, I thought it was a scam. You can't trust anything you find on the internet, right? Anyway, I got in touch with [Potvin] and asked her why she didn't put it up for general auction, and she had her reasons—I think she didn't want it to go into the wrong hands. I'm sure a lot of people would love to buy it and burn or buy it and give it as a gift to Harper. To me, it's an emotive piece and therefore it's worth any amount of money. It has a very deep meaning.

Do you mind me asking how much you paid for it?
I'd prefer not to, y'know, bastardize the process by making it look like a commercial transaction, so I'd rather not share. I'm not buying it to resell it, I'm buying it to share it. I guess if I go bankrupt or become destitute, then maybe it will be for sale, but I don't see this as a wallet transaction. It's a heart transaction and a brain transaction.

Fair enough. What are you going to do it with it?
I'm open to suggestions, I don't physically have it yet. I have reached out to some friends who work in this industry and am looking to see if any galleries are looking to take it. I'm happy to share it with universities and schools at no cost. My thinking is that it is a very important vignette and tells a very important story about people's feelings in the last ten years. There are so many feelings in this painting and the artist, Margaret Sutherland, has done a brilliant political satire and she's really a genius amongst us to be able to capture so many different things in one simple image.

I think there's also a lesson for the Conservative Party as they try to regroup now. Like, historically, I'm a business owner, and I come from the group that like low taxes, I come more from the right side of the spectrum. I think the Preston Manning political Reform Party spoke to a lot of people out here on the west. It was time to go to Ottawa, clean things up, make things transparent, bust up this old boys network, do things a different way. The net result was unfortunately where we suffered through ten years of government officials, scientists, environmentalists, fishing and oceans scientists being intimidated and not being allowed to speak—[organizations that were] being made headless. This picture has an allegory because it has those headless civil servants in the background not being allowed to speak. Maybe I'm being [dramatic] here but I love this piece because it inspires, it offends, and it's overall genius. I'd like everybody, from all sides the political spectrum to be able to appreciate this.

It's really interesting that you identify as right-wing. When Harper was just coming into power ten years ago, were you a fan of him?
Again, I wasn't too politically inclined, but if I look at the things that are important to me: lower my taxes, bust up this scam network, get rid of the way things were being done, then yeah, I think a lot of people were, and that's how he eventually swept himself into a majority position. But none of those things came to fruition. There was absolutely no transparency—the pendulum swung the other way.

You'd have these laws like C-51, non-stop government spying, these are the tactics of intimidation and this centralized only one person speaks for the government style of ruling. This painting holds lessons for Stephen Harper, for Jason Kenney, for all sitting politicians that power corrupts. On one hand, I burst out and laugh every time I look at the painting, but on the other hand, I see how the artist was in a dark place and created this to express her frustration. I can relate with that.

Let's talk about C-51. You made that $1-million donation. What was it about the bill that struck a chord with you.
Well, I haven't been hidden about the fact that I grew up in Iran. As an ethnic minority in Iran, we were always told, "Be careful what you say on the phone because the secret police are always listening." The Canada my parents came to didn't have any of that, but all of the sudden, we're in a scenario where, doesn't matter if you're left or right, the government isn't listening to its own experts or its citizens.

After I did that initial donation, I had refugee friends from all over the world—from Bulgaria, from Syria—telling me, "I know exactly what you're talking about. We went through that same thing with totalitarian laws that allowed us to listen to everything we did." I should also note that just because the government has changed, doesn't mean that's where we are now.

I was just going to touch on the fact that the Liberals faced great criticism for their support of Bill C-51. How do you feel now that they're in power and what do you expect of them?
I didn't think Trudeau would actually win, but I think everyone on the civil society side has been caught a bit flat-footed because [the Liberals] have signalled that they want change but they haven't been very clear about how they're going to do that. I'm watching very carefully, I'm watching my pennies to see how we can allocate resources to make the government move, and obviously, it's too early to tell, but I'm an impatient guy and we need results soon.

I don't like when I see intonation toward things like [changes because of] the recent attacks in Paris. The Paris attacks aren't a demonstration that we need C-51 because France has mass data collection similar to C-51, and it didn't stop the terrorist attacks. We need better policing, we need all these things can work, and we also need to revisit our foreign policy because of big part of what's happening in Syria and with ISIS is due to what we support. It's too early to pass judgment on Justin Trudeau, but time's ticking, so we'll see.

Maybe, ending on a light-hearted note—
This hasn't been fun?

Oh it's been fun, but I'm curious: do you think Harper looks better or worse in the real life nude?
[laughs] I'm not really sure. It's funny because, well, let's just say my wife won't let me put on the wall, but all of my friends say he's not pudgy, he's swell! At the end of the day though, it's not about the way he looks. You have to move beyond just the literal. It's not about just throwing stones at Harper, I'm sure Harper's a great guy in person, but once he becomes prime minister and starts crossing the line by affecting policy that affects people, it's fair game to make political satire of him.

I think the key thing here is the context issue and I want to stress it. There's been some criticism that it's not nice, or, "Oh, well, it's disrespectful." There's always these people that can never see beyond the lines of obedience-level morality. Like, to some people, the Tiananmen Square guy walking in front of a tank was a jaywalking violation. To some people, they didn't get the bigger context. This scenario, it only works for Harper in this painting, because he's the one who silenced scientists, he's the one who told ministers not to talk. He focused the light on himself, and that's why it shines so bright in this painting.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

More VICE
VICE Channels