North Korea’s art export
Artwork from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has always been a trademark for modern socialist realism. Although North Korea is well known for being the most secretive nation in the world, the largely unknown nation is certainly not shy when it comes to publicizing their statues, monuments, grand festivals, and celebrations. In particular, a North Korean based construction company known as Mansudae Overseas Project, has been designing fine art for decades, helping art to become one of North Korea’s most important and most successful exports. While many other North Korean barriers remain up, fine art from the country has managed to make its way to foreign countries that are located as far away as Africa.
About Mansudae Overseas Project
Established in 1959, the Pyongyang based art studio has a total of 4,000 workers, 1,000 of whom are highly skilled artists. The Mansudae Overseas Project has handled so much work over the years that it is currently classified as one of the largest and most successful art production studios in the world. The studio used to operate under the guidance of then-leader Kim Jong-Il who was known to have a deep and keen interest in art and theater performance.
Different departments inside the studio
The Mansudae Overseas Project features many departments, making it the most prominent and well-known studio in North Korea. Some of the departments include woodcutting, ceramics, painting and of course sculptures. Although the studio has helped to create monuments such as the Monument to the Founding of the Korean Workers Party1 all over the country, it is the international commissions that the studio is most well known for.
International exports since the mid-1970s
North Korea is not known to have a meaningful bilateral relationship, and that is why it’s “biggest” export, the gigantic statues, continues to baffle many people even today. Art has been one of the most successful exports from the much-maligned state, especially to Africa and other developing countries.
Through Mansudae Overseas projects, the government of North Korea has constructed around 11 statues in 17 countries, including Angola, Benin, Botswana, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Germany, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, and Zimbabwe.
Since the mid-1970s, the international chapter of The Mansudae studio has been offering cheap labor for the creation of outstanding and huge monuments such as the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, as well as the Heroes Acre war monument in Namibia. The Mansudae Overseas Project has managed to attract a steady list of international clients although Germany is the only country in Europe that has ever commissioned the studio to create a monument (Frankfurt’s Fairy Tale Fountain).
Although The Mansudae Overseas Project has earned an estimated 160 million US dollars in the last 10 years, the studio has been criticized for poor working conditions that it exposes workers to and the low pay. The artists who work steadfastly do not get any returns as money from art sales is re-directed to the North Korean government. Additionally, some artists have criticized some of the monuments claiming that they are a little too ‘North Korean’ for their liking.
Videos: Interviews with artists in Mansudae Art Studio
Angola: MAAN (Memorial Dr. Antonio Agostinho Neto)
This monolith sculpture was constructed in 2012 as a commemoration of Angolan first post-independent president, Agostinho Neto. Dominating the Luanda skyline, MAAN is the final resting place of Dr. Neto and is located right at the center of a cultural museum named after him, the Agostinho Neto Cultural Center.
Agostinho Neto played a crucial role in Angola’s fight for independence from the Portuguese between 1961 and 1974, and later become the country’s first president in 1975 until his passing in 1979. The tower was inspired by famous Neto’s poem titled The Path of Stars.
During his presidency, Neto forged strong relationships with the Soviet Union, something that Mansudae Overseas Projects was eager to remind the world through the powerful Soviet modernist design of MAAN.
However, for non-historians, it may seem odd for North Korea to get involved in what is evidently an essential cultural monolithic in the history of Angola. Still, a short trip down memory lane and everything makes sense.
Drubbing Angola’s Civil War, which started when Neto was still in office and ended 2002, North Korea sent his military personnel to help out the Neto’s incumbent MPLA party, along with help from the Soviet Union and Cuba, all socialist nations.
MAAN cost approximately $40 million, and North Korea funded a huge chunk of it.
Benin: Behanzin statue, Abomey
Once upon a time between the 16th and 20th centuries, there was a considerably powerful empire in West Africa known as the Dahomey Kingdom, with its capital, Abomey City. The kingdom enjoyed several centuries of prosperity until the French showed up. The nation was under King Behanzin when it was conquered in the early 1900s.
In the late 1800s, the French approached King Behanzin with an enticing offer in exchange for the kingdom. However, the king didn’t consider it a rational one, and the French were aware of that. This led to a two-year war between the Dahomey Kingdom and the French.
Despite the kingdom having a massive number of warrior fighters (15,000 males and 4,000 females), the French’s lethal weapons were just too much, and eventually, the kingdom was subdued. As a result, Dahomey became one of the last traditional Kingdoms to be defeated by the colonialists.
To honor the kingdom and its last king, Mansudae built the statue of Behanzin in the city of Abomey (former capital of the kingdom), with his hand raised in the act of defiance of the imperial rule.
Botswana: Three Dikgosi Monument, Gaborone
Standing shy of 18 feet tall, the Three Dikgosi Monument comprises the statues of three tribal chiefs (dikgosi), namely Khama III of the Bangwato, Sebele I of the Bakwena and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse. They lead the fight for the independence of Botswana.
In 1895, the three chiefs traveled to Britain to beseech Queen Victoria, Joseph Chamberlain and Secretary of State for the Colonies, to isolate the Bechuanaland Protectorate from Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and British South Africa Company. The British government agreed to the proposal and the Batswana remained under its direct rule until it attained impendence in 1966.
The monument was inaugurated in 2005 by the former president Festus Mogae. Despite being the most visited site in the capital, the monument still raised some questions. Critics questioned why the government had to give the contract for the project to Mansudae Overseas Projects. Some ethnic groups in Botswana felt the monument is just proclamation of Tswana’s dominance over other ethnicities.
Cambodia: Angkor Panorama Museum
The Angkor Panorama Museum was inaugurated in 2015 after the North Korean government donated it. The museum is located adjacent to the iconic Angkor temples. It is operated by APSARA (the Cambodian authority protecting the Angkor Archaeological Park), collaborating with the Mansuadae, which contributed around half of the staff working at the museum.
For the first time, Mansudae decided to commercialize its oversea project through ticket and art sales at the museum.
Though Mansudae has sizeable control of the Angkor Panorama Museum, there are plans underway to hand over power to the Cambodian government in sixteen years, unless profits stay low, necessitating time extension.
The museum’s highlight is the 390 feet long 42 feet high, 360 degrees mural created by Mansudae studio artists. The painting resonates with the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’s panoramic murals back in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang.
The museum took nearly three years to complete, costing $24 million.
Democratic Republic of Congo: Laurent Desire Kabila
Towering in the middle busy roundabout in the DR Congo capital, Kinshasa, is this 25 feet tall statue of the stern-looking former dictator and president Laurent Desire Kabila. Dressed in frilled military pants and button-up, his finger raised, and a small book clutched in his left hand, the statue has an uncanny resemblance to the North Korean leader. In fact, many locals believe the body of the statute is that of Ethiopia – Tiglachin Monument
Tiglachin means “our struggle” in Amharic. The monument was constructed as a commemoration of Cuban and Ethiopian soldiers who perished in the Ogaden War between 1977 and 1978 with Somalia.
Standing 164 feet tall, Tiglachin is the second-highest Mansudae sculpture in the continent. Its design pays tribute to socialist Cuba and North Korea, which also contributed during the war. The monument was commissioned by Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam and built on Churchill Avenue in capital Addis Ababa.
The centerpiece of the monument is the tall column crowned by a red star. A massive model of a military medal is attached about two thirds up the pillar, encompassing the requisite hammer-and-sickle crest.
Above a marble platform, surrounding the column at its base, is a cluster of sculptures, fringed by two flag-shaped bas-reliefs portraying a wide range of scenes including meetings, peasant workers, military, and revolutionary meetings. Lastly, there are two panels with images of Cuban soldiers that perished during the Ogaden War.
Meaning “fountain of fairy tales”, the Märchenbrunnen is another sculpture by Mansudae. This one was installed in Germany. The statue was commissioned by the National Park and designed by renowned architect Ludwig Hoffmann.
Germany is the only Western democracy to have worked with Mansudae Overseas Projects, as most countries, including the United States, have sanctioned the company.
Though the Fairy Tale Fountain has been around for a long time, it was severely damaged during World War II, and Mansudae took part in its reconstruction.
Mozambique: Samora Machel Statue, Maputo
Another Mansudae statue that has received backlash for its resemblance, the Samora Machel Statue, is a tribute to Mozambique’s former rebel-turned president. Perched atop a marble block in the heart of Praca de Independencia in Mozambique’s capital Maputo, this 30-foot statue supposedly depicts the infamous Samora Machel, an ex-leader of the FRELIMO who led Mozambique to independence in 1974 from the Portuguese.
Machel was still the president of Mozambique when he perished in a plane crash in South Africa. This statue was inaugurated on October 19, 2011, on his 25th anniversary.
Namibia: Independence Memorial Museum Namibia
This historical museum in Windhoek is dedicated to the anti-colonial resistance and the national struggle of Namibia. It was launched in 2014 on March 21, the 24th anniversary of its independence.
Enclosing the museums are two statues, the Genocide Statue and Sam Nujoma Statue (sitting on the site of the German-style Reiterdenkmal equestrian statue), also created by the Mansudae Overseas Projects.
The museum is structured on four floors. The first floor is titled “Colonial Repression” and honors Namibian resistance leaders when South Africa was still ruling the country. The second floor is titled “Liberation”. It venerates the 1966-1990 South African Border War and the part played by the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) in the battle.
The third floor is titled “Road to Independence”. It documents the role of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 and SWAPO. The fourth and last floor features a restaurant and offers vistas of over Windhoek.
Senegal: African Renaissance Monument
At 160 feet tall, the African Renaissance Monument is the tallest in Africa and one-and-a-half times taller than the iconic Statue of Liberty. The statue comprises a bare-chested man holding a baby high up in one arm and leading a woman with the other.
The child points ahead as if to indicate a brighter future, while the woman’s hand points backward as if to acknowledge past turmoil. The monument was inaugurated in 2010 on the date of the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence from the French.
Zimbabwe: National Heroes’ Acre
Located in Harare Zimbabwe, National Heroes’ Acre is the burial site for all Zimbabweans who have been declared hero status by the government. It spans some 57 acres and is located around 7 kilometers from the city center.
The memorial was created to commemorate those who perished in the battle for national liberation and the sons and daughters of Zimbabwe whose achievements warrant their burial to this sanctified site.