Business unusual in North Korea

Think North Korean art and most likely one imagines towering statues of the country's Eternal President Kim Il-sung who died in 1994 or of his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.

    Neighbouring countries regularly host North Korean art exhibitions

    Or perhaps one thinks of inspiring social-realist murals urging on the workers to ever greater feats of Stakhanovite-like industrial output.

    Billed as the first of its kind, the newly opened Pyongyang Art Studio in Beijing has all this - and more.

    Opened by Nick Bonner, a Briton who specialises in organising tours to the People's Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), the gallery is the latest example of how constructive cultural exchanges are helping to build bridges between the hermit kingdom and the outside world.

    Now, in addition to taking home some designer knock-offs, visitors to the Chinese capital can contemplate buying a Kim Chang Hui or a Lee Gyong Nam.

    Hardly household names to the average art aficionado, both these artists' landscape works start at about $1000. And it is not just the novelty you are paying for.

    Well-known DPRK artists hold regular exhibitions in both South Korea and Japan and are highly respected inside their own country.

    Varied colouring

    Take for example the bird and tree works of Kim Gi Man. Using a traditional North Korean painting style, Kim applies watercolour on top of an ink-and-brush base. The effect is similar to a Chinese scroll except that the tone is heavier and the colouring more varied.

    Nick Bonner's gallery in Beijing is
    a showcase for North Korean art

    Initially priced at $900, Bonner is in the process of revising his sales pitch after complaints from the Mansudae - the official North Korean art centre - that collectors were getting the works for a bargain.

    Or perhaps one might care for a stylised painting of Mt Paekdu, one of the deepest volcanic lakes in the world, and the legendary birthplace of the "anti-Japanese resistance led by Kim Il-sung".

    "There is a surprisingly large art scene in North Korea.

    They are an enormously talented people,"

     says Bonner, who counts many of the artists displayed as his friends.

    And it is not just picturesque Korean landscapes that are up for grabs. Kitschy but popular propaganda images of patriotic soldiers, muscular workers and fertile mothers, all standing united under the same flag, are also on offer.

    Yet it would not be North Korean art without a twist of bureaucratic restraint.

    Not for sale

    "These propaganda paintings are not yet for sale as the North Korean Government does not recognise them as art," said Bonner.

    Still in use today, the appellative "art" cannot be applied as in DPRK parlance this suggests something with a sense of antiquity.

    Instead, their selection of sometimes exquisitely detailed works (in one painting, a buxom female welder puts the finishing touches to a pipeline while in the background cheering workers valiantly waving the hammer, sickle and writing brush emblem that symbolises the Workers Party of Korea can be made out among the clouds of sulphurous gases and flying sparks) will be made into posters.

    Kim Jong-il (C) has persisted with
     his father's isolationalist policies

    Run as a cultural experience as well as a business, the gallery also sells a weighty selection of North Korean books, pamphlets, cigarettes and mulberry wine. With titles like "US: The Empire of Terrorism" and "US Imperialists Started The Korean War", the tone is positively partisan.

    Firing back at the nation that labelled Pyongyang as one of the three wheels of the "axis of evil", the DPRK Foreign Language Press accuses the imperialist US Government of a catalogue of terrorist crimes (some of which many may feel empathy with), including the white man's massacre of Native Americans, the persecution of black slaves, and (less plausibly) the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

    Polemics aside, the centre opens only a month before the DPRK hosts its biannual International Film Festival. Lacking the glitz, glamour and scandal of Cannes, the festival is usually known for its selection of hits from Lebanon, Iran and Syria.

    Celluloid passion

    Founded in 1987, the festival formerly went by the tongue-twisting mouthful, Pyongyang Film Festival of the Non-aligned and Other Developing Countries.

    This year however, for the first time, a number of well-known Western commercial hits, including the British football comedy Bend It Like Beckham and Whoppi Goldberg's Sarafina, will be included among the entrants.


    Propaganda images are not all
    there is to North Korean art

    According to a DPRK embassy spokesman in Beijing, the festival is open to all comers regardless of nationality and they welcome applicants.

    Bonner, who helped put together some of the entrants, said he even tried getting Michael Moore to participate with his anti-Bush film, Fahrenheit 9/11, but the normally controversy-seeking director was not interested.

    Cinema, says Bonner, is a popular form of entertainment, and come festival time queues will be forming outside of most movie halls inside Pyongyang.

    Himself a winner of the festival with the documentary Game of Their Lives, a follow-up look at the 1966 DPRK football team who knocked Italy out of the World Cup, Bonner says that local directors are not just watching the films but trying to emulate their style.

    Positive reaction

    Big on romance and heroic drama, film scenes shot in the official Chollima (nicknamed Cholliwood) studios are these days less concerned with lingering stills of the sunset and are more focused on keeping the action short and to the point.

    Patriotism is a popular theme
    among the country's painters

    Offering both sides a tentative glimpse of the other through art and film is only one part of a much wider, yet rarely reported series of exchanges that have continued despite the uncertain political climate.

    Building on the positive reaction to the Game of Their Lives, football continues to play a large part, with various expatriate teams from China and Hong Kong regularly venturing north of the border.

    In April, an international arts festival was held, with a British steel drum band amusing local cadres with the sounds of the Caribbean, and timed to coincide with the film festival will be the arrival of an Olympic swimming coach as well as Simon Clifford, the founder of the Brazilian Football Academy.

    Unlikely to prove as lucrative as Hollywood, the DPRK arts scene should be as equally captivating.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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