EDDO HARTMANN, Gun Instructor, Maeri Shooting Range, Pyongyang, 2015, from the “Pyongyang Women” series, c-print, 100 × 80 cm. Copyright and courtesy the artist. 

Korea, North

Korea, South
Also available in:  Chinese

With Kim Jong-un at the helm, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has conducted 16 missile tests in 2017, including two that launched rockets over the Japanese archipelago in August and September. As North Korea rapidly develops its weapons program, questions abound regarding how these developments are financed, particularly when even the country’s primary patron, China, has agreed to sanction the Kim regime.

The DPRK gleans foreign currency via several trades, including art. Practicing visual art in North Korea requires registering as an “official artist” with the regime-backed Korean Artists Federation; its members then must produce propaganda art. All state-sponsored artists are trained in the Pyongyang University of Fine Arts, where students learn the techniques behind chosonhwa (“Korean painting”) ink works, mural painting, embroidery, poster design and other art forms.

Mansudae Art Studio remains one of the largest art production facilities in the world, employing around 4,000 “official artists” who produce woodcut prints, landscape paintings, sculptures and more. The studio operates the first North Korean art studio abroad, the Mansudae Art Museum, in Beijing’s 798 Art District, where visitors can purchase the regime’s socialist-realist artworks or commission new works.

The 63-year-old Korean Art Gallery in Pyongyang is the DPRK’s main art museum, with a permanent collection of around 900 paintings, most of which were produced domestically and depict idealized scenes with workers or soldiers. The Korean Central History Museum and Pyongyang International House of Culture are the two other official institutions where North Koreans can experience visual art.

Nicholas Bonner’s Koryo Studio in Beijing is one of the few foreign institutions that consistently collaborates with visual artists and filmmakers who are seeking source material in North Korea. The studio assisted Dutch photographer Eddo Hartmann in producing the project “Setting the Stage,” which includes 360-degree video documentation of Pyongyang, and was shown at the Huis Marseille photography museum in Amsterdam (12/9–3/4/18).

The DMZ Academy, a Norwegian project that brings foreign artists to North Korea, hosted its inaugural contemporary arts symposium in Pyongyang (8/26–9/4), facilitating meetings between seven international artists and curators, with colleagues from Pyongyang University of Fine Arts and Mansudae Art Studio.

Across the border with China, in Dandong, the China-North Korea Cultural Center offers a year-round showcase of landscape paintings and other works by North Korean artists. Moscow’s Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography presented “(Im)Possible to See: North Korea” (6/22–9/3), an exhibition of more than 70 images by nine photographers who have visited the country in recent years, offering glimpses of the day-to-day existence of Korean denizens north of the 38th parallel.

In August, four North Korean painters participated anonymously in an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York without approval from the Kim regime. The weeklong “International Youth Exhibition” (8/4–11) was mounted at the building’s Delegates’ entrance. A block over, New York-based Korea Art Forum mounted the group photography show “Commodity and Ideology, Part II” (10/12–31) at the Church Center for the United Nations, featuring images by Pyongyang-based Song-Gwang Hong, Myong-Un Kim and Ryong Kim, alongside South Korean-born Zaun Lee and Beijing-based Shen Yang.

In February of 2018, London’s the House of Illustration will present an exhibition of North Korean graphics. In September, the DMZ Academy will take an exhibition—“The Art Factory,” developed from the initiative’s symposium—on the road, with a first stop at the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair. Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Gulliksen’s documentary film, The War of Art, which tracks the DMZ Academy, will premiere.

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