It probably comes as no surprise to hear that North Korea has a factory of sorts employing 4,000 people to pump out propaganda artwork. By now, many people are aware of the weird, manufactured cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty. What has intrigued me lately is how North Korean art pops up around the world. Let’s take a look at the unexpected ways the closed-off country interacts with the art world…
This unassuming building in a former industrial neighborhood of Bejing is home to the sole foreign branch of North Korea’s Mansudae Art Gallery, where tourists and locals can browse and buy state-sanctioned art from North Korea.
But here’s the really interesting part; North Korea will happily hire out Mansudae’s talents to fellow despots and narcissistic politicians (oh, and Germany) who wish to outsource their monuments. Unsurprisingly, many of these projects have been controversial.
One of the better known, Senegal’s African Renaissance monument was designed by a French artist, but brought to life by Mansudae in 2010. Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal at the time, framed the decision in blunt financial terms, saying “Only the North Koreans could build my statue…I had no money.” That price tag is estimated to be somewhere between 25 to 70 million dollars, though there are reports that Wade struck a deal to pay North Korea in Senegalese land. The towering 164 foot tall statue–for comparison, taller than the Statue of Liberty–apparently came out with Korean features, so the heads needed to be sent back and redone!
The only Western democracy to have hired North Korea thus far is Germany, who commissioned Mansudae to recreate an art nouveau fountain in Frankfurt.
The original, often referred to as the Fairy Tale Fountain, was melted down for its metal during the war. Mansudae’s reproduction suffered just one small initial issue; a harsh Soviet style “cement block hairdo” that sculptors adjusted with some guidance from the Germans.
The decision to go with North Korea was ostensibly made because skilled German sculptors no longer work in the realist style of the original fountain, however the final cost of a little over $250,000 (including delivery!) couldn’t have hurt.
There are quite a few more monuments and buildings–mostly African– made by North Korea’s Mansudae, but I’ll leave you with just one more. It’s not hard to spot the reason for criticism of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s monument to former leader Laurent Kabila. The statue was widely panned for appearing to have plunked Kabila’s head on Kim Jong Il’s body! I guess when you’ve already got so many perfectly good despot bodies pre-designed, why go to the bother of creating a new one?