For the antagonists of the Cold War, Africa was a political canvas. Conflicts both rhetorical and military could be waged in proxy across the old colonial heartlands without temperatures rising to a dangerous degree in Washington or Moscow. Yet for some the canvas that the continent offered was also artistic.
North Korea today is known as the world’s most isolationist nation, an obdurate outpost of totalitarianism. But the public spaces of Senegal, Ethiopia, Kenya and elsewhere are dotted with reminders of a long-running, underappreciated and often surreal charm offensive that was waged by the North as part of the Korean peninsula’s own (still unresolved) Cold War. Since 1969, Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Studio has exported statues and other monuments to at least 16 African countries, many of them free of charge: from anti-colonial memorials to statues of independence-era leaders in the finest Socialist Realist style.
In his multimedia project Mansudae Master Class, South Korean artist Onejoon Che explores the legacy of North Korea’s particular brand of cultural diplomacy. Filming in six sub-Saharan nations, he has visited the sites in question and spoken to both African and North Korean former politicians in an attempt to tease out the historical lessons of Mansudae. “My interest lies in exploring the ongoing Cold War of the Korean peninsula from a new geopolitical perspective,” he says of his series of video installations, archival materials and miniature replicas. “Mansudae Master Class is the culmination of a study into cultural diplomacy, military alliance, translated forms of Socialist Realism, and images of utopia.”
Mansudae Art Studio was founded under Kim Il-sung in 1959 and has since turned out more than 38,000 statues and 170,00 other monuments across North Korea. Following the first wave of independence movements in Africa and Asia in the 1960s, a raft of new states emerged in need of national iconography and “statement” architecture — and with something valuable to offer in return. Pyongyang recognised the chance to win the backing of young African republics, many of whose leaders espoused some brand of socialism. So Mansudae began exporting plans, workers and materials to Africa completely free of charge; only since 2000 has the North Korean state received payment for its efforts.
What is more perplexing than this altruistic approach is the fact that even today, when the African countries in question are fully integrated into international markets and have many home-trained architects and artists, the North still provides many of their monuments. Mansudae Master Class features several artists in, for instance, Kenya and Gabon bemoaning the fact that local creatives are shut out by the old line to Pyongyang. I ask Onejoon Che about the disjuncture between contemporary African politics and the steady supply of old school socialist artworks. Are these Mansudae products still well received?
“It is difficult to say in a generalised way, because each country has different political and economical relations with North Korea,” he says. “Let me take two examples. Experts and citizens in Senegal have greatly praised the technical level of the Africa Renaissance Monument [the colossal 49 metre bronze statue built by Mansudae on the outskirts of Dakar in 2010]. However, regardless of the technical aspect, the monument was controversial in Senegal when it was built. That was nothing to do with North Korea — it was Senegalese criticism of [president] Abdoulaye Wade’s regime, and the religious issue that a large monument literally meant idolatry for the Muslim population.”
Onejoon Che’s second example is Madagascar. “The leader of the socialist Second Republic of the country, Admiral Didier Ratsiraka found political inspiration in Kim Il-sung. His regime was dedicated to a very centralised version of socialist development. In the 1970s, North Korea supported Madagascar by building the presidential Iavoloha Palace and agricultural waterways free of charge. So today, Madagascar considers North Korea a close ally. Madagascans over 60 express their respect for Kim Il-sung without hesitation.”
The African Renaissance Monument in particular was pilloried in the Western art world for its retrograde Stalinist machismo. Where does Onejoon Che draw the line between artistic and propagandistic value when it comes to Mansudae? “I think it is necessary to analyse the aesthetic side of an artwork when it is made for a political purpose,” he replies. “Mansudae does use similar techniques to those used in the Socialist Realism of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, but they call their style ‘self-reliance aesthetics’.” “Self-reliance” or Juche is the isolationist and nationalist ideology expounded by Kim Il-sung and his successors, which has proven paradoxically successful on the international art market. “There are no abstract, minimal, and conceptual ideas and expressions in ‘self-reliance aesthetics’. That is to say, Mansudae focusses more on techniques than the individual, creative expressions of an artist.” It is this commitment to the institution over the individual that allows for an easily exported product, one that can be adapted to local context without hassle.
Onejoon Che has previously spoken of the parallels between the situation in post-colonial Africa and the modern-day Korean peninsula, and of the “incomplete progression to modernity” in each. “Half a century ago, South Korea and North Korea were one country,” says Onejoon Che. “They have a similar cultural homogeneity, ethnic sentiments and so on. And although South Korea and North Korea have had very different political systems, both sides underwent poverty after the war followed by modernisation and rapid economic growth.” Whilst it drags on, Korea’s Cold War is now an unequal one, with the North hugely dependent on foreign aid — including from the South. “As the economical gap between South Korea and North Korea is increasingly widening today, South Korea treats North Korea as a foreign country,” Onejoon Che says. “With this come various misunderstandings, since information about North Korea is limited and delivered unilaterally.” While a direct parallel between the West and Africa, and South and North Korea will not hold, there is a sense in which the “strange”, backward regime in Pyongyang plays the same role in the South’s consciousness as Africa does for its former colonisers.
Mansudae Master Class interrogates these uneasy parallels and uncovers a strident and under-examined history of North Korean engagement in international affairs. In Che Onejoon’s words, “the African perspective on North Korea”, refracted through the colossal bronzes, authoritarian concrete and triumphalism imported from Pyongyang, “provides an opportunity to see North Korea anew”: much in the same way that Mansudae Art Studio helped post-independence Africa proclaim its own identity.
Extracts from Mansudae Master Class are on display in the exhibition Things Fall Apart, part of the Calvert 22 Foundation's Red Africa season, from February 4th - April 3rd.
Text: Samuel Goff
Image: Onejoon Che, stills from Mansudae Master Class (2015)