The African Renaissance Monument, a 164-foot-tall bronze statue outside of Dakar, Senegal, built by North Korea’s Mansudae Art Studio in 2010. Photo by Christophe Blitz. Courtesy Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, Dakar.

Hollow Monuments

Korea, North
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In North Korea, artists employed by government-operated studios create the only artwork that travels beyond the state’s borders. And as their art becomes increasingly visible around the world, available for purchase or commission by sympathetic countries who share the totalitarian nation’s need for imposing monuments to state power, one must consider the implications—aesthetic, political and moral—of this newly powerful reach. 

With a 4,000-strong workforce, including approximately 1,000 artists, the Mansudae Art Studio is the largest atelier of its kind in North Korea. The studio’s official website, administered by Pier Luigi Cecioni, an early collector of North Korean art, claims on its homepage that it is “not a sort of chain factory, like some Chinese and other Oriental centers.” Instead, Mansudae employs graduates from the nation’s top art academies, such as the Pyongyang University of Fine Art. Although there are several art studios in North Korea, Mansudae alone operates under the “special guidance” of Kim Jong-il, making it the country’s most prominent art institution. Jane Portal, author of the significant 2005 history Art Under Control in North Korea, estimates that artists produce an average of two paintings a month, or approximately 4,000 works a year, of which half are public orders. Mansudae workers are responsible for most of the major artworks in North Korea, from large public projects such as the 42-foot-high winged-horse Chollima statue in central Pyongyang to ink paintings hung in hotel lobbies.

The extent to which the country is decorated in official artwork is unmatched. According to a 2007 study released by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul, spending on “Kim-family deification”—meaning monuments, festivals, films, books, billboards, murals, historical sites and any other valorization of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un—made up nearly 40 percent of the state’s visible budget, all while spending in defense, welfare and bureaucracy had decreased. Critics of the state say North Korea has increased spending on propaganda in order to counter the influence of the outside world, sating its people with ideology in the interest of social stability. 

In the past decade, Mansudae has expanded its presence abroad through the Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP), the international affiliate of the Pyongyang studio. Many Mansudae works are available for private sale through official subsidiaries such as Mansudae’s Italian-operated website and galleries in North Korea and abroad, including a successful two-year-old space in Beijing’s 798 district. They have primarily appealed to Japanese, Chinese and South Korean markets. But MOP’s most startling growth has been in Africa, where the company has quietly been expanding its presence since 2000. As economic sanctions on the state have made it increasingly difficult for Kim Jong-il and his government to maneuver internationally, MOP’s construction projects have proved an efficient means of generating foreign currency for the regime. A provocative June 2010 article by Kim Yong Hun in the Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news service operated by vocal critics of the North Korean state, reported that MOP had earned in excess of USD 160 million in the past decade through the construction of statues, monuments and other edifices in African nations including Angola, Algeria, Benin, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Namibia, Senegal, Togo and Zimbabwe. MOP’s international activities are not limited to Africa, having completed projects in countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia. MOP operates local offices in many of the countries with which it has dealings, often administered by North Koreans holding diplomatic passports.

Perhaps the most controversial of these projects has been the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal, a 164-foot structure commissioned by Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from France. Taller than both the Statue of Liberty and Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the monument depicts a barrel-chested African man with an infant pointing to the future on one arm and a curvaceous woman being swept forward on the other. In January 2010, the 84-year-old Wade described the monument to the Wall Street Journal as “Africa emerging from darkness, from five centuries of slavery and two centuries of colonialism.” As direct and uplifting as it sounds, however, the project carries ideological baggage: Wade is one of the last-standing political proponents of African Renaissance, an intellectual agenda popular during the 1990s that has lost steam in the ten years since he became president. Critics speculate that an aging Wade invested money he did not have in a massive project that prioritized his own legacy over the more basic needs of Senegal’s citizens. The monument is estimated to have cost $28 million, funded through a transfer of prime real estate to MOP, which later sold the land at profit. 

Unveiled in April 2010, the monument towers over nearby squatter camps and garbage dumps. Members of the country’s more than 90-percent Muslim community have sharply criticized the statue’s style, in particular the revealing attire of the statue’s female figure, with one Imam even going so far as to issue a fatwa against the idolatry of the monument. Amy Niang, writing for the progressive African news hub Pambazuka News, succinctly described the project as a “colossal financial, political and aesthetic scandal.” Audiences throughout the continent, in fact, have consistently decried the aesthetic and political agendas inherent in Mansudae-built monuments. 

In Botswana, for example, when a $1.1 million National Museum and Art Gallery contract was awarded in 2004 to Mansudae for design and construction of a monument to three of the country’s most storied tribal chiefs, frustrated local artists expressed dismay at being shut out of an opaque and suspect bidding process, unfairly denied the chance to work on a project of national pride. Many also questioned the artistic integrity of the work, with one artist describing the sculpture as “standard busts and statues of some European generals with the nicely combed heads of three Botswana chiefs.” Others derisively pointed to the work’s resemblance to Socialist Realism, a style that has nothing to do with any indigenous African culture. In Namibia, the public has complained about the rapid deterioration of the monuments at the Mansudae-constructed Heroes’ Acre in Windhoek, whose centerpiece is an unknown-soldier statue, closely resembling former president Sam Nujoma, bearing an AK-47. Only three years after its dedication in 2002, the “S” and “N” from Sam Nujoma’s name were missing, with others hanging precariously in place. When Mansudae was awarded the 2008 contract to build the Namibian government’s new People’s House, also in Windhoek, the project was met with skepticism and outrage, as it relocated families to make way for a construction project with no officially stated cost. In Zimbabwe, the family of the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo commissioned a commemorative statue from Mansudae in 2010. The work was decommissioned shortly after its completion following the objections of Nkomo’s family, which did not find the statue to be in his likeness of the man known as Father Zimbabwe. 

North Korea’s presence in Africa began through efforts to cement relations between the globe’s remaining socialist states with diplomatic gifts, such as the Victory Monument (Dialachin Monument) to the Ethiopian government in the 1970s. But relations are not uniformly friendly, particularly in Zimbabwe, where North Korea is blamed for its role in the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, having trained the troops in Zimbabwe’s Fifth Brigade that went on to massacre an estimated 20,000 civilians in the country’s predominantly Ndebele regions. Popular resentment of North Korea still runs so high on account of this trauma that Zimbabwe withdrew an offer to host the North Korean soccer team for training in advance of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  

Despite these pervasive controversies, MOP continues to rack up commissions within the region, with new projects including a 50th-anniversary independence monument in Chad and the Agostinho Neto Center of Culture in Angola, taken over by Mansudae from a Brazilian company. Governments continue to overlook poor popular reception of Mansudae works in favor of Mansudae’s portfolio and competitive rates: as Senegal’s Wade told the Wall Street Journal, “I had no money,” and thus “only the North Koreans could build my statue.”

That money goes a long way in Pyongyang, where it is suspected that MOP-commission profits filter into party slush funds, held in private accounts in China, Macau and Switzerland. These funds are managed by what is known as the Third Floor, referring to Offices 38 and 39 in the KWP Central Committee Office Complex in the Central District of Pyongyang, secretive organizations that manage both party and Kim-family funds. Office 39 is known to be involved in managing gold and zinc mining, foreign-currency earnings from hotels for foreigners in Pyongyang and agricultural and fishery exports, but it is also notorious among economists, political scientists and journalists for illicit activities such as counterfeiting US currency, drug smuggling and weapon sales. 

As MOP expands its presence abroad, it seems clear that the studio has amply demonstrated its talent for creating monuments to political authority, with pricing competitive enough to ensure that Mansudae remains the go-to contractor for many African states. But those profits come at a real cost, and MOP ventures ultimately stand as monuments not to the heritage and promise of young nations, but to a corruption spread across the globe, sustained in equal parts by the laws of transaction and vainglory.

Massimo de Carlo SAM Artspace RossiRossi Art Basel UBS