Diplomatic, opinionated, extremely ambitious and extraordinarily connected, the founder of the international Liberatum festival Pablo Ganguli could be just about the most influential young person in the world of culture
Words by Kawai Wong, Potraits by Calvin Sit
Quite literally, Pablo Ganguli has a treasure trove of global A-listers at his fingertips. “My phone is like the rabbit-hole in Alice in Wonderland – it’s all in here!” the 28-year-old self-styled ‘cultural diplomat’ once said. And, with the likes of Charles Saatchi, Daphne Guinness, Martin Amis, Courtney Love and VS Naipul on his phone, we don’t doubt it.
It isn’t, however, just about the address book. It’s what Ganguli has been doing with his contacts that’s turned the heads of cultural observers from Rio to St Petersburg, New Delhi to Notting Hill. Whenever the charismatic Indian-born Ganguli strokes his iPhone, he’s probably rounding up the likes of Tilda Swinton, Kirsten Dunst and Haider Ackermann to appear at his festival, Liberatum.
Ganguli founded Liberatum 10 years ago in order to forge communications between the world’s finest creative minds – a sort of amalgamation of the Semi-Permanent, Hay Festival, The Prom and SxSW events. And, over the past decade, the festival’s budget has grown from US$2,000 to more than US$2 million. Despite these budgets, one key element of Liberatum is that it’s completely free to the public. Speakers take no fee for their participation and everything the festival does is entirely choreographed by Ganguli and his intimate team of five who are stationed in London (but we should note that the organisation reportedly takes 20 percent of the festival budget).
The rise of Liberatum has been nothing less than meteoric and behind it, steadfast, has been this prodigious and charismatic man, inevitably giving rise to the same burning questions wherever the festival has spread: who is Pablo Ganguli? How did he, as a 17-year-old, enter the elite circles of art and culture? And how did this global cultural event materialise into a real-life encyclopaedic show?
The Time Out crew has been waiting for 45 minutes in a sea-view suite at Admiralty’s The Upper House hotel, craning our necks in anticipation for someone who we only know as a flamboyant flower of the party, a fearsome networker and the first gay consort to a British diplomat, aged 17. He finally waltzes into the suite in a whirlwind of lace headscarf and faux feather eyelashes with his 19-year-old boyfriend Tomas Auksas, a Lithuanian artist who wishes to ‘create a new form of art the world has never seen before’.
After a round of garden party formalities including firm handshakes and niceties, Ganguli strolls around the room to find the giant bedroom. “Why don’t we do the interview in bed?” he asks in a contrived artsy accent. And then he descends into the plush linen, with Victoria Harbour standing as an impressive backdrop. And so, the interview begins…
You call yourself a cultural diplomat. What exactly do you do?
It’s like being an architect. From drawing to putting the colours on to painting it to selling the art to meeting the buyers and to actually putting it on the collector’s wall. It’s like producing an album or a film. I am completely hands on. You know. You have to find the funding, the venues, the producers, the managers, the PRs…
You’ve been linking up cities and creative minds for 10 years now. When you first started you had barely even finished school…
Well, I left school at 16 and I needed something to do. When you don’t study, you have to do something else – either work in a shop, go downhill and start taking drugs or live off your parents. I did none of those. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, to connect the world with cultures.
Not many 16 year olds have that ambition…
While I was living in Papua New Guinea, I found the country very dead in many ways. You know, culturally. So I started the first kind of Liberatum through my company called Connect UK. It was very UK focused at the time.
Liberatum had presence in Russia, Marrakech and Istanbul under different guises such as St Petersball, Kitab and Istancool. We’re confused. What’s the thinking behind it all?
It was very stupid thinking. I was losing brand recognition by calling it a different name. But it makes more sense calling it Liberatum as an individual, you know, a unique name for each.
What exactly is Liberatum?
The whole point of Liberatum is to focus on the creativity-making agenda and to get the money-making people to support it…
Charles Saatchi wrote an article calling art buyers ‘Eurotrashy, hedge-fundy Hamptonites’. How do you feel about dealing with art and money for your festivals?
I loved [the article]. It’s about the bastardisation of art collectors. I was in Venice with [Saatchi] when the article came out. I should call him. I have his number. [He browses his iPhone and shows us Saatchi’s contact details] I mean, look at the art world today… It’s very important to have Charles Saatchi as part of Liberatum. He should know that something like this exists in the world – which is exactly anti what he’s saying…
So you love the article but you disagree with what he says?
[Interrupting] Without sounding disrespectful, hasn’t he made money from that? It’s like me telling you in 20 years time: “God, Pharrell and all these people are terrible!”
But I guess what Saatchi meant was the vehicle to appreciate art has changed…
No, no. I think people still buy art because they appreciate it. It’s only the ones we see buying art in photos are the ones [who are] not appreciating it. It’s like talking about buying Versace or Prada. A lot of people who wear them look hideous in them because they don’t even fit! It’s the same thing with the art world. There are a lot of people who are obsessively buying art and going to Venice going ‘darling, darling’ and wearing the most atrocious clothes. These rich Russians and Arabs are who Saatchi’s talking about because they’re publicising the fact that they are buying it.
Not every iPhone comes installed with Saatchi’s number. Clearly access to the man had to start somewhere. How did you do it?
It was just me as a human being. I wasn’t trying to be someone [else]. I am very self-obsessed because it’s all about me, me, me and my work. I entertain people and I come to HK to entertain people and I’m the vehicle, the vessel – and the artists are coming via me, if you like. I think if you’re entertaining people, it’s very easy to be followed by them.
How does it feel to have this power to bring together all these famous names?
I don’t think like that. I mainly think like: “I have to do that. I have to get this much money. I have to create that and do an opera with Lady Gaga.” I never think: “Oh I’m successful.”
Does it take a lot of entertaining to get these people on board?
I don’t like connecting with people because socialites do that. People are socialising and nothing really comes out of it. I hope HK get something out of Liberatum intellectually rather than just connecting and having lots of drinks and parties. You know it’s great to see people collaborate in HK, talk about art and design for the public. It’s not a commercial thing.
Ganguli opened up our interview with ‘is this too out there?’, referring to the Jordan-esque faux eyelashes he’s wearing. His flamboyance, open-mindedness and the ability to make people feel at ease makes him the gravitational pull of any room.
And Ganguli also plays his diplomatic role well: ask him certain direct questions and he defects, digresses and avoids a straight answer – all diplomatic ammunition he may have learned from his former flame, Simon Scaddan. More than 10 years ago, the then 59-year-old British High Commissioner in India divorced his wife of 39 years and left his two grown children for Ganguli, who was then known as a 29-year-old (but was in fact just 17) to the tabloids. One may attribute Ganguli’s success to his then ‘lifelong partner’, although his current boyfriend, Tomas Auksas, wouldn’t agree. “People think that Pablo achieved so much because of Simon or through Simon’s connections,” he says. “But it’s rubbish. Culture is not Simon’s field. Simon was having dinners with heads of states and not artists. He’s not interested in rappers and musicians. It’s easy for people to make that association. But it doesn’t make sense.”
And on this note the interview continues…
You left school at 16. How much of that was due to Mr Scaddan?
[Exasperates] School wasn’t creative. It was horrible. Have you been to India? It was a horrible school. I didn’t like it. You know, I was a young man. And he wasn’t a young man. He was my best friend and what are best friends for if they can’t guide you?
Was he a beacon to you at the time?
He still is. You don’t choose who you become friends with or fall in love with. Or want to live with. I didn’t spend my time thinking it was controversial. I spent my time thinking how I should make this work. He was my first love and it’s nice to have a friend who’s a very intelligent person. And whether that’s a man, woman, boy, girl – it doesn’t matter.
How much has Scadden inspired you?
Well, he improved my English. I don’t know about other things. He wasn’t teaching me much about Liberatum. He was actually always amazed how I could do it. If you were asking ‘if he inspired me’, his English inspired me.
Do you think you’d be in this place right now if it weren’t for Scaddan?
Yes, because I’m an amazing, creative person and whether it’s him or whoever, it’s not because of them. It’s because of me. Everything I’ve done is because I wanted to do it. I actually left him before I started Liberatum. And while I was with him, I was not really doing my cultural thing.
So, from a personal point of view, what do you think are the main attributes to your success?
Success? I don’t really know. People think of me as very social but I’m actually very boring. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do crazy things. I just work and I think of myself as a young guy who really is creating things. I want Liberatum here to be a success – but I don’t think ‘I am a success’.
So how do you get the ammunition to deal with the difficult world of art and culture?
I’m fearless, I think. That is the answer.
But Simon did inspire me. He inspired me to be a diplomat. Why are we still talking about him? Why don’t we talk about Tomas?
Do you gravitate towards love or do you have an urge to learn?
I left Simon in 2003 and it’s 2012. Such a long time! He’s married, he’s got another partner… Tomas is always complaining how all the journalists only want to talk about Simon. Tomas and I have been together for four years now – he was 16 when I fell in love with him. I was 24. So it was the other way round with him as it was with Simon.
Liberatum isn’t just about rappers and painters. The whole point of it is to gather together cultural minds and have them speak with the public. There are major musicians, film-makers and writers coming from all over the world – like a touring global festival. But, on a cultural level, it raises some concerns. Traditionally, regional art and design are instantly recognisable. For example, ink washed paintings are a specialty of the Orient and you can easily identify a Renaissance painting and its approximate origin. But if shown a modern sculpture nowadays, it could have been created by a Kenyan or a Brazilian artist and you wouldn’t know without checking the artwork’s tag. Each place on Earth has its own cultural background and thus their own ideas about what is art. So, is cultural homogeneity necessarily a good thing? Is having all these cultural magnates influencing future creativity in the same way as each other good for art and design? Ganguli is a symbol of globalisation himself. His mother is American and his father is Indian. He grew up in India, has lived in the South Pacific and now resides in England. So what does cultural globalisation mean to him? Let the interview conclude…
How globalised are you, at heart?
Well, I speak eight languages. I speak Asian. I don’t have a British passport even though I live in Britain. I don’t think of being globalised, because I am it.
What’s your opinion on ‘cultural globalisation’?
I mean, isn’t everything cultural globalisation? Look at Apple – people are killing themselves in China making iPhones. A lot of companies do horrible things…
But that’s commercial globalisation…
Mmm. I love globalisation when things are global but it’s done through a local way. Even in Hong Kong: I like going to local places, like a local little shop having noodles there, seeing the real places. I’m not here to go to the Mandarin Oriental. Globalisation in terms of culture… everybody depends on it now. But I prefer the local culture more because that’s the rare thing that should be preserved.
So should culture be diversified or unified?
I mean it’s like falling in love with someone who’s not from your race. Is your child a contradiction or a celebration of that?
Is there a contradiction between loving local culture and loving globalisation?
At Liberatum, I would like there to be some disagreements because it’s important. I would love to do something with Ai Weiwei on Skype, you know? But would it be right for the sponsors and the government? Maybe not.
We went to visit Ai Weiwei in his home. Maybe he should speak at Liberatum?
In some countries, I can’t do many human rights projects because the government would ban them. Those countries contradict human rights, so we can’t. You know?
But are we right in thinking that Liberatum hopes to bring change – and by not touching on a certain subject kind of defies the whole point of Liberatum, doesn’t it?
Because in your manifesto you said supporting humanitarian issues is as important as sharing with the world our finest artistic minds...
That’s the thing. We do it. We still do it. We do it in a way that it doesn’t seem provocative because that would be childish. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. I don’t care about me. I care about the people. If you come out and do something and they get beaten up by their countries after we leave… we have to be careful because of them. We don’t want them to be hurt after we leave.
Tomas said every time I beat him, when he’s given a black eye, he said: “You don’t care about human rights.” [Laughs] I care about human rights. Both he and I have been attacked on the street just because we’re standing together, holding hands. And we are standing out, when you’re unusual. Being a woman is unusual in today’s world because you live in a man’s world in a lot of places, like in some Arabic countries. At midnight, a woman walking down the street is unusual, so you’re gonna get attacked. Or raped. Or hurt. The same for a man who’s not your natural idea of a man – they might get attacked.
What concerns you the most about human rights today?
Communication censorship. I think that’s a big problem in the world. That’s what’s happening in the Arab world and in Syria today. I was 18 when I created the first women’s rights conference in the South Pacific. In some countries, I can’t do too many human rights projects because the government would ban them. Liberatum did a lot of events where everyone talks about freedom of speech. And even in Russia – where we even thought that wasn’t the right thing to do – we do it gently. It’s like being bitchy. It’s better to be bitchy in a subtle way than to be bitchy in somebody’s face. You really don’t want the other person to start damaging things for the people who are involved.