North Korean art show in London avoids politics

By Charles Scanlon
BBC News

Image source, AP
Image caption,
This is the first time the embassy has been opened to the public

It must be the most idiosyncratic suburban house in the country. The currently bare flag pole in the front garden is the only suggestion that the 1930s villa in far flung Ealing might be more than just another family home.

But for more than a decade, this sanctuary in commuter-land has been the UK headquarters of one of the world's most reclusive and little understood countries.

Now the North Korean ambassador and his staff are throwing off the cloak of secrecy and inviting in members of the public for an unprecedented three day art exhibition.

Media caption,
North Korea is viewed as one of the most oppressive nations in the world, says the BBC's Alpa Patel


The occasion is a visit to London by artists from what is thought to be the world's largest art production centre.

The Mansudae Art Studio is a sprawling campus-like compound in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and employs an extraordinary 700 artists, out of a staff of 4,000.

It already has substantial international business, working on sculptures and public monuments for largely African clients.

The pictures on display at the London exhibition mainly show uncontroversial scenes from nature and everyday life - girls sitting in a park, a woman in national costume, construction workers.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The Mansudae studio also produces North Korea's political posters

What is immediately striking for anyone familiar with the North Korean style is the lack of political and ideological content.

The Mansudae studio is a state body and one of its primary functions is to extol the virtues of North Korea's totalitarian system and the ruling Kim dynasty.

But here it is projecting art to an entirely new European audience and efforts have been made to rid it of overt political content.

'Artistic freedom'

Four leading artists from the company have been in London for two weeks and have been painting pictures of the city, which are included as part of the exhibition.

All were coy when asked about the extent of ideological content in their normal repertoire.

"We decide what we want to paint. We have total artistic freedom," said Ho Jae Sung, a 42-year-old oil painter, who like most of the others graduated from the elite Kim Il-sung university.

"But if other countries take actions that arouse our anger, then we can express our indignation in our art," he says.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Mr Ho said that artists in North Korea are free to paint whatever they want

They are not on display here but the studio is also responsible for political posters, seen all over North Korea, which celebrate the country's missile programmes and armed forces and often depict scenes of crushing defeats inflicted on a cowering American enemy.

The North Korean ambassador said the aim of this exhibition was to promote better understanding and contacts between the British and North Korean people.

It is not clear the extent to which the initiative is also driven by commercial motives, but work from the studio has been available for sale in Europe for some years.

David Heather of Heather Arts and Exhibits in London curated the exhibition after building contacts and trust with the North Korean authorities over many years.

He says he wanted to highlight the very high degree of technical skill of the Mansudae artists. "That is why I wanted them to produce paintings while they were here in London, so they can show that these aren't mass produced paintings turned out by machines as some people seem to suspect," he said.

Hong Song-il, who has the title of "merited artist", which marks him out as one of the studio's elite chosen to paint the crowds at the Tower of London viewing millions of ceramic poppies filling the moat - part of the memorial events to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I.

Image source, AP
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Mr Hong said that the crowds around the Tower of London reminded him of memorial events for the Korean war

"It was just like North Korean people remembering the war of aggression fought against us," he said referring to the Korean war in the 1950s, but agreed after some discussion that the emotions of the crowd were somewhat different - the anger and thirst for revenge did appear to be missing, he conceded.

The Mansudae Art Studio is reported to have been led personally by the former leader Kim Jong-il who died in 2012 and who took a close personal interest in all the arts.

No-one wanted to be drawn on that subject as only certain prescribed formulations are permitted when discussing the leadership. But Kim Jong-il's personal taste is considered to have had a decisive impact on the work being carried out.

Most of it is in the socialist realist style, depicting the heroic workers, farmers and soldiers of the revolution.

All of it is absolutely literal and drawn from life, showing no influence of any developments in western art since at least the 1860s.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Kim Jong-il was reported to have kept a close eye on the activities of the Mansudae Art Studio

'Beautiful people'

Kim Hun, another "merited artist", expressed bemusement when asked for his impressions of modern art displayed in London museums.

"Even I, as an artist, can't understand it so what hope is there for ordinary people to make it out, " he said, through an interpreter provided by the North Korean government.

All the artists seemed eager to stress the similarities they saw between London and Pyongyang. Beautiful people doing beautiful things appeared to be the official line.

But when pressed for a difference, one said that London had a rich history and was full of fascinating old buildings - but he expressed disappointment that they appeared dirty and badly looked after.

Image source, Jerome Weatherald
Image caption,
All four artists stressed the similarities between the capital cities of London and Pyongyang

He also had an observation about the artefacts on display at the British Museum.

So many of them came from other countries, he observed, unlike North Korea where all the displays were indigenous. It made him think that these items must have been stolen from their country of origin and that gave him cause to wonder about Britain's history and role in the world.

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