Trendy London welcomes North Korean art

Asia Times
Michael Rank

Above the chic shops and arcades of London’s Pall Mall, the flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea wafts incongruously in the wind. Look inside, and portraits of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader stare out at you.

No, the North Korean army hasn’t marched across the River Thames, but Pyongyang has established a small cultural enclave in London’s West End in the form of the first major exhibition of North Korean art in the Western world.

Curator David Heather says he first got the idea after meeting a North Korean painter at an art exhibition in Zimbabwe in 2001. “I got chatting with Mr Pak and he invited me to Pyongyang,” said Heather, making it all sound surprisingly straightforward. But the 45-year-old financier admits that mounting the exhibition was “quite a challenge … very time-consuming” and also admits that he has no great knowledge of art or the international art market.

He describes the surprisingly extensive exhibition of about 70 artworks as “an opportunity for people to see art from what is a secretive and protective society at first hand”.

The show ranges from apolitical landscapes and ceramics to a vast, blatantly propagandistic battle scene celebrating the routing of the US Army in the Korean War, as well as hand-painted posters on such unexpectedly diverse themes as “international hero” Che Guevara and “say no to sexual slavery in the 21st century”. This is a clear reference to Korean and Chinese “comfort women” who were forced into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Heather brought over three of the artists to London for the opening of the exhibition, including Pak Hyo-song, whom he had met in Zimbabwe and who has two dramatic – if highly un-North Korean – wildlife paintings of zebras and lions on show.

Pak spent five years in Zimbabwe as representative of the Mansudae Art Studio, North Korea’s leading group of official artists, whose activities include designing monuments and propaganda posters on behalf of foreign, mainly African, governments.

Pak’s dramatic if not entirely lifelike oil paintings seem to have been influenced by the well-known British African wildlife artist David Shepherd, and sure enough, the 47-year-old “Merited Artist” told Asia Times Online at the opening party that he was a great fan of Shepherd.

He is undoubtedly the only North Korean artist to have had a one-man show in Europe, after Heather mounted an exhibition of 15 of his paintings in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 2005.

The London opening featured a remarkable mix of people. It was was a rare chance for the three North Korean artists and normally elusive members of the North Korean Embassy in London to mix socially with South Korean diplomats, art collectors and business people as well as with British Foreign Office officials, members of Britain’s tiny pro-Pyongyang New Communist Party, and at least one aging Moonie.

Heather said he had hopes of bringing the show to Paris, Berlin and even New York, and that only a few days after the opening he had already sold 50 posters at 250-300 pounds sterling (US$500-600) each, as well as two large paintings priced at several thousand pounds.

The sum of 300 pounds may sound like a lot for a none too subtle North Korean poster by an anonymous artist, but propaganda art is highly fashionable nowadays, with Chinese posters from the 1960s and 1970s fetching hundreds of dollars in London and New York. Given that the North Korean posters are hand-painted while the Chinese pictures are mass-produced prints that originally cost a few cents, the North Korean versions may turn out to be rather smart investments.

Heather said he had “no idea” how much he had invested in the exhibition, including renting a gallery on one of London’s most expensive streets for six weeks. “I don’t do it to make or lose money,” he said, but he clearly takes pride in being “a good negotiator”.

He said the North Koreans are “very direct and straightforward” and that “they are very open to ideas”. He has visited Pyongyang just once, in 2004, and conducted most of his negotiations in Beijing. Heather said he had bought 150 artworks, which he would show in rotation. Pricing the pictures was difficult, as this was the first time North Korean works of art were being sold in the capitalist West, he noted. “It opens up a new market which wasn’t there before.”

The biggest and most expensive picture in the exhibition is called Army Song of Victory and is priced at 28,000 pounds. A collective work by seven artists, it shows a Korean People’s Army brass band celebrating as US troops flee in the Battle of Rakdong River in 1950. A spokeswoman said the gallery was considering an offer of 21,000 pounds on the opening night.

Heather said he had received “a lot of help” from the North Korean Embassy and the British Foreign Office, and quiet encouragement also from the South Korean Embassy, which was anxious to see what North Korean art was all about. He has taken the North Korean artists to the Houses of Parliament, the British Museum and the historic city of Bath – despite the floods covering much of western England – and invited them to his home for a traditional British dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Heather has clearly formed an excellent rapport with the North Korean Embassy, and has even played golf with one of its diplomats on a course near London. “He’s sort of average like me. He has played on the Pyongyang golf course; it’s mainly for the elite,” Heather explained.

But holding an art exhibition is just the beginning, and Heather is now hoping to bring a 150-member North Korean orchestra over to London next year. “I’m hoping they will play in the Royal Albert Hall or Royal Festival Hall,” he said, referring to London’s two biggest concert halls.

This may not be quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Heather is working on the orchestra project with British soprano Suzannah Clarke, who has given several concerts in Pyongyang and is one of North Korea’s few foreign celebrities. Her rendition of “Danny Boy” is said to be especially popular with North Korean audiences. Given her fame and his business prowess, it’s an unlikely plan that just could come off.

Artists, Arts and Culture of North Korea runs at La Galleria, 5b Pall Mall, London SW1Y 4UY, until September 2.


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