NICHOLAS BONNER and DOMINIC JOHNSON-HILL with unknown North Korean artist, Glorious CCTV Tower, 2008, gouache on paper, 84 × 117.5 cm. Courtesy Koryo Studio and Plastered 8, Beijing.

Korea, North

Korea, North
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One of the world’s most oppressive and isolated countries, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was founded by the autocratic Kim Il-sung in 1948, and is now ruled by his grandson Kim Jong-un. The young “supreme leader” has raised eyebrows due to antics ranging from hosting retired American NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang, to upgrading the country’s long-range rocket launch site and publically dispatching over-powerful uncles.

All artists in the DPRK must enlist as an “official artist” in the guild-like Korean Artists Federation (KAF), and produce work in government-approved studios, receiving monthly salaries to create propaganda art. It is compulsory to receive formal training before being admitted into the KAF. The most talented head to the nation’s top art school, Pyongyang University of Fine Art. A comprehensive arts education includes the revered art form chosonhwa—traditional Korean brush-and-ink painting adapted for propaganda purposes—along with similarly inclined mural painting, jewel painting, embroidery, printmaking and poster design.

The leading state-run ateliers permitted to sell art are Mansudae, Minye and Paekho. The 54-year-old Mansudae Art Studio is the oldest and the most active outside of North Korea with over 4,000 employees of which 1,000 are artists. It operates the Mansudae Art Studio Museum (MASM) in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, selling original and copies of socialist-realist paintings, statues and posters, and maintains a presence online through myinweb.com, run from Padua in Italy. It also earns revenue through its international branch Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies, which builds massive sculptural monuments for countries such as Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Pyongyang’s Korean Art Gallery, founded in 1954, is the predominant art museum. The Korean Central History Museum also has holdings of Kim family portraits and propaganda works. At the newly launched State Industrial Art Centre, an exhibition of landscapes marked the 95th birthday of Kim’s great-grandmother Kim Jong-suk.

Market interest in North Korean art is mainly fueled by buyers in China. Many travel to Pyongyang to buy directly from art studios, or else purchase through galleries in Beijing such as MASM or North Korea specialist Nicholas Bonner’s Koryo Studio. The latter’s 2013 highlight was “The Beautiful Future” (9/21–10/3): eight commissioned paintings of Beijing, reimagined by Pyongyang-based propaganda painters working from sketches by Bonner himself and Dominic Johnson-Hill. In the Chinese port of Dandong, the second China-DPRK Economic, Trade, Culture and Tourism Expo (10/11–15) featured an exhibition of Mansudae artists.

In New York, Gallery Ho held “Parameters: Landscapes from North America and Northern Korea” (10/24–11/23), with works by Pyongyang National University alumni Chang Ho Choi and Chun Mun Hwa.

Looking ahead, London’s British Council will present the results of a photography project that took place in the Hermit Kingdom.