The Peculiar Presence of North Korean Art in China and Beyond

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.

The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
Though–as you’ll see a bit further down–part of the appeal of North Korean art is the low price tag, Mansudae curiously admits on their website that the artwork is marked up due to “Chinese collectors that have more familiarity with Mansudae artists.” While you won’t be able to see what’s on offer without a trip to Beijing, many works are cataloged online. Here’s some of pieces shown on the website. There are actually many pastoral and floral themes, but the clearly propagandized pieces are far more fascinating to me:
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
Below, the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, where the majority of the work happens. It employs 1,000 artists trained in art from a young age and selected from graduates of Pyongyang University of Fine Art, along with another 3,000 or so laborers to keep the massive “production center” running smoothly.
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
A Business Week article on Mansudae offers this tantalizing little nugget from German art museum director Klaus Klemp, who had occasion to visit the studio when working with them on a commission: 
 “Mansudae’s artists produce kitschy knockoffs of several foreign genres, including Dutch landscapes and Parisian city scenes, which according to several experts, likely get sold abroad. ‘If you’re standing on the Seine and you buy a painting from one of those stands, there’s a good chance it was made in North Korea,’ says Klemp. ‘I can’t imagine that those artworks are sold locally.'”
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio
Mansudae Studio is also tasked with the creation of monuments, statues and other public art (because what’s a dictatorship without at least a couple 60 foot tall statues of yourself?)
The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio

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 works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio

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 works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio

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 works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio

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?

The works of North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio

Save

Save

3 COMMENTS

  1. What an interesting read, I really enjoyed this! Most of the facts were news to me – I had no idea people in NK could actually go to university to study fine art. I spent a month in Beijing this year & learned a lot about propaganda art from the Mao era. These are very similar which is obviously no accident. I lived in Russia for a year & the convergence between soviet, chinese communist and North Korean propaganda art is extremely interesting!

Comments are closed.