North Korean UK embassy hosts first art exhibition

By Vincent Dowd
Arts correspondent, BBC World Service Radio

image copyrightAFP
image captionHong Song II painted the ceramic poppies on display at the Tower of London

The art of North Korea is almost entirely unfamiliar to the outside world. But now an exhibition of paintings in London gives an insight into the work of artists in one of the world's most secretive states. Even more remarkably the public are for the first time being invited into the country's embassy in London to view the pictures.

Gunnersbury Avenue in west London is a busy arterial road not much linked in the public mind with the worlds of diplomacy or art.

Yet number 73, built as a substantial family home, houses the embassy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This week it's also doubling as an art gallery, exhibiting the work of four artists who in recent weeks have been encouraged to paint their impressions of London.

Varied images range from a picture of the popular installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London to two young women sitting laughing by the River Thames, enjoying the early autumn sunshine.

As well as pictures painted in Britain there are others selected in Pyongyang by David Heather, who has curated the exhibition.

He's been trying to persuade the North Korean authorities to mount such a show for more than a decade, but in the event the detailed work has been done quickly in the last couple of months.

"The practicalities have been complex but the intention has been simple all along," he says.

"We're bringing two cultures together, exchanging comments and criticism. It builds a bridge, which can surely only be of benefit."

The artists who have travelled to the UK - Jon Pyong Jin, Kim Hun, Ho Jae Song, and Hong Song Il - are all male and in their 40s. Three have been awarded the North Korean honour of Merited Artist.

Since they've been in London, as well as painting their own pictures, they've visited collections such as the Tate and the V&A and the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery.

image copyrightAFP
image captionKim Hun's work included paintings of visitors to London art galleries
image copyrightAFP
image captionJon Pyong Jin's work included paintings of Trafalgar Square and the Thames riverbank

Opportunities to see North Korean art in London have been few. But the extraordinary decision has been taken to hold the new show within the embassy itself.

It's the first time the general public has been invited in to the building, whose doors have generally remained shut to the outside world.

The previous occupants would be surprised to find the main ground-floor room now packed with pictures from the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, selected to show a cross-section of the nation's art.

Heather says if nothing else he hopes the paintings will prove there is no uniform style of painting in the country: "You don't expect everyone in Britain to paint the same way and it's not true in North Korea either."

He says he'd be delighted to see long queues stretching from the front door half-way to Acton Town station.

To those who study the often opaque progress of North Korean politics, simply unlocking that door will count as a notable development.

image copyrightAFP
image captionHo Jae Song said that he enjoyed freedom to paint as he wanted

At this week's launch event for the media it was clear the artists were keen to avoid anything political.

Ho Jae Song was asked if he thought artists in the West enjoy greater freedom to express their opinions as they see fit.

He said that to him it seemed being an artist was much the same in most cultures and that he enjoyed the freedom to paint as he wanted.

Heather says he's delighted that the artists will at times be around during exhibition hours of opening for visitors to talk to through translators.

"I hope there'll be a real exchange of ideas. I think the public will explain what they like and I'm certain they'll say what they don't like too.

"What I'm planning is that we now take a group of artists from Britain to the DPRK. I'm hoping that artists who think they have something to offer will contact me: I would love to see British artists going to Pyongyang and painting what they find there and exhibiting there too."

"The exhibition in London is only for four days but it may lead to something more lasting. If nothing else it's a chance to come and stand on North Korean territory in London. I'm sure some people will think that's an adventure in itself - but I hope they enjoy the art too."

DPRK fine art exhibition will be open from 11am to 5pm from 4-7 November, 73 Gunnersbury Avenue, Ealing, London

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