An exhibition in the U.S. shows creative expression in North Korea serves a political purpose.
Aug. 8, 2016, at 10:49 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Never before have so many North Korean soldiers infiltrated the American capital.
By one count, at least 22 North Korean soldiers and guerrilla fighters – strapped with rifles, guiding artillery and covered with leaves serving as camouflage – are stalking the halls of American University.
Call off the dogs: They're paintings, not people. Yet it's a startling sight in a country still technically at war with North Korea.
"Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution of Socialist Realism," at the university's Katzen Arts Center, features paintings prized by North Korea, as well as newer pieces from the regime's state-run studios. They date from the late 1960s to the present, and range from bucolic landscapes that hew closely to traditional Asian painting to enormous, dramatic murals that show off feats that the regime wants immortalized. Among them are 10 pieces lent by North Korea's national museum and brought to the United States by exhibition curator BG Muhn.
The paintings make their American debut at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea, whose young leader, Kim Jong Un, in recent months has ordered test after test of ballistic missiles designed to strike the United States. U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from building missiles or nuclear weapons, and Washington and its allies have moved to impose ever-tightening sanctions against Pyongyang in response.
Allegations of human-rights violations have only sharpened international condemnation of Pyongyang, raising questions about showing art that glorifies the North Korean regime.
"Everything to do with North Korea is always 'the wrong time'," notes Katharina Zellweger, an aid worker who has lived and worked in North Korea since the 1990s, and staged her own exhibition of North Korean posters in 2012. "We would never get anything done if we had to wait for the 'right' time."
Some see the paintings as a chance to decipher Pyongyang's psychology through its propaganda. Many of the paintings feature military motifs while others celebrate laborers and factory workers, another prime focus of North Korean artwork. And several of the more recent works capture some of the economic changes taking place in the Kim Jong Un era.
Art is propaganda in North Korea. Posters emblazoned with the latest political slogans serve as advertisements for the ruling Workers' Party. Massive portraits of the late leaders loom over the lobbies of Pyongyang's most important buildings while intricate mosaics depicting scenes from legends of their exploits dot the countryside. There's an ugly side to the propaganda as well: Virulent, gory posters depicting Americans torturing Koreans, and North Koreans bayoneting Americans, are part of routine anti-U.S. education.
Talented art students are plucked for training at an early age, and the most gifted vie for entry to the Pyongyang University of Fine Art. From there, the best are recruited to join state-run art studios where they serve as chroniclers for the state, party and military.
Artists compete to have their works selected as "national treasures" housed at the Korean Art Gallery, North Korea's art museum in Pyongyang.
Scores also are sent abroad – to China, Cambodia, Qatar, Namibia and elsewhere — to work on art and construction projects outsourced to the North Koreans, from massive bronze statues of African leaders to a history museum in Cambodia that opened last year, according to Ji Zheng Tai, owner of the Mansudae Art Gallery in Beijing, which sells works by North Korean artists.
However, Americans have had little opportunity to see much of North Korea's art firsthand. Tours to North Korea are expensive and restrictively orchestrated. And the repeated arrests of U.S. citizens have prompted the State Department to warn Americans against traveling to North Korea.
Foreigners sporadically display collections of propaganda posters of the type sold to tourists and popular abroad as kitsch. Fine art, however, is largely kept apart from tourists. That inaccessibility makes the works displayed at American University unusual in the level of artistry made available to a foreign audience.
While propaganda posters are the genre best known to foreigners, this exhibition highlights the art form most revered by the regime: ink-and-brush paintings known in North Korea as "josonhwa," or "North Korean art."
Until the 1960s, North Korea used the same term as the South Koreans, "dongyanghwa," which translates as "East Asian art," for the style of painting traditional to China, Japan and Korea. However, the advent of nationalistic policies laid out by North Korea's late President Kim Il Sung in the 1960s meant giving North Korea's art a new name, and a specific socialist and nationalist focus.
Muhn, a South Korean-born painter who teaches at Georgetown University, says he first came across "josonhwa" in 2010 and was struck by the artistry of the work rather than unnerved by it, as he had expected, having grown up with anti-North Korean propaganda.
Muhn, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, made his first trip to Pyongyang the following year, and immediately began plotting to share the art with Americans. It's fitting, he says with a laugh, that these North Korean paintings are making their debut at American University.
However, the North Koreans refused to allow him to take their "national treasures" out of the country. Instead, they lent him sanctioned replicas of prized works.
The objectives laid out over the decades to North Korea's studio artists are clear from the exhibition.
Works from the late 1960s and early 1970s glorify guerrilla warfare against Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and military conquests during the Korean War (1950-53), two conflicts that to this day form the backbone of North Korea's nationalistic, xenophobic identity.
"Farewell," from 1977, depicts a tender moment as a young woman in military uniform wades into water to bid farewell to an injured soldier already pulling away to head back into battle. Bombs explode in the water behind them near a boat full of weeping, terrified children behind them.
At first glance, the works look almost simplistic. But Muhn says he was drawn to the expressiveness of the figures' eyes.
"The expressed emotions are theatrical and melodramatic," Muhn says in the exhibition catalog. "However, there is also an unexpected solemnity and serenity coupled with a sense of strong determination in these works."
Works from the 1980s highlight construction and economic development. Pak Tae Yon's "Victors of 100 Days' Fervent Endeavor" depicts workers jubilant for surpassing a "speed campaign" goal. A quarter-century later, North Korea is still carrying out speed campaigns – the country is in the midst of a 200-day campaign now – revealing how important it is for factories, plants and farms to meet state-issued quotas.
Perhaps the most singular paintings are two massive works of collaborative art by teams of North Korean artists.
"Sea Rescue in the Dark" portrays South Korean fisherman calling out to North Korean fishermen for help as the sea roils around them. The painting, allegedly based on a real incident, was completed in 1997. It's a surprising perspective considering how often those waters have been the site of fatal confrontation between North and South Koreans, and that the work was created when North Korea was undergoing a famine.
A 2015 work by six artists, "Joyfully Anticipating Completion of the Dam," depicts the construction of the Huichon hydroelectric power station, a project central to the current propaganda because it now provides most of the electricity lighting up Pyongyang. The painting crackles with energy and activity.
"To me, it's like a spiritual enlightenment because they don't really express their own expression as an artist," Muhn said. "You have to have harmony among the chosen artists. It's not personal glory."
The newest pieces, including one that remains a work in progress, highlight the evolving nature of modern art in North Korea.
"Joy from the First Smelting," a 2013 painting by Sin Yong Sang and Ri Hyon Ok, depicts a worker, hand resting on his smelting tool, a look of exhausted satisfaction on his face. The painting is almost impressionistic in style, with his face in colorful detail while the rest of his figure is conveyed through bare, broad brushstrokes in black and white.
In "A Worker" from 2014, Choe Chang Ho employs color and a few strong brushstrokes to convey the man's physical strength as well as his perseverance. And in "Application to Become a Party Member," completed this year, Kim In Sok leaves parts of the canvas unfinished, a deft way to remind the viewer of the hand behind the brush.
That painting, of a wounded soldier, is striking as well because of the focus of the work. It depicts a soldier who in his last moments of life aspires not to military glory but to membership to the Workers' Party – a telling shift that hints of the regime's current mission to bring the military into the party's fold.
It is also likely the first time in Washington, D.C., that a Korean War painting depicts a North Korean soldier as the hero, not the American lying dead just a few feet away.
The exhibition continues through Aug. 14.
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