Dive now into North Korean Art

How art evolves in totalitarian regimes. From russian constructivism style to current North Korean art style.

Question everything permanently is our role of designers. When I’m being asked to do something that I’m not sure about, if I’m asked to think in a way that I’m uncomfortable with, if even my friends tells me it’s weird to be interested in something,

I continue asking questions and research for more informations.

North Korea is one of those topics where I hear many people having a lot of certainties although none of them went or actually searched for information by themselves. But when I talked about art, nothing… No one had a clue about how it is or how it has evolved since North Korea has been “locked down”. What does it look like? Is and how is the horrific context of this country impacting the evolution of art? Are there some specificities? Can North Korean express their art like they want? How is art produced and for what aim?

So I started digging.

It was an uncomfortable and weird search, I followed the footsteps of an artist Song Byeok and the writter and tour operator Nicholas Bonner that led me to start answering those questions.

Made in North Korea

Nicholas Bonner’s book — Made in North Korea

Uniformity in art in opposition to freedom of individual expression

Curiosity is the reason why I bought this book. And by the way, I used my freedom of being curious to buy it and read it.

Nicholas Bonner, who wrote this book, is a British citizen who worked as a tour operator. He was based in Beijing and specialized in travels to Pyongyang for many years. His book gives hints on the life over there through a collection of packaging, pin’s and posters. It shows the backwardness of artistic style of this country. Individuality is left for the benefit of the collective thinking and this is staring you in the face when you flip through the pages.

Packaging design in North Korea

I love packaging, mainly because it’s the design that reaches the biggest amount of people. Everyone buy those type of designs, even North Korean citizen. Studying how is visually composed a packaging makes you understand many things about everyday’s life. Through the food that people eat in a country, the goods that people buy, the way that they eat and more widely the culture of the country through colors, fonts and art style.

North Korean art seems stuck in the 1920'

It’s a mixted between Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism and Russian Suprematism art movements. Yet, the styles has evolved independently from the rest of the world in this isolated country.

Left: New Year Postcard 2005 from North Korea / Right: Propaganda Russian Posters from 1920

On those postcard examples the contextual link with Russian Constructivism Propaganda posters is really obvious. And the color saturation of the same art movement also.

Where is produced art in North Korea?

All packaging and more widely all arts made in North Korea are produced in the same place. The Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang regroups more than 1000 artists working for the country and their leader. They work on food packaging, architecture, woodcuts, charcoal drawings, sculptures, ceramics, embroidery, jewel paintings and many other artistic technics.

It’s the biggest art studio of the world.

The art specialty of North Korea is called “Chosonhwa”

It is the art of painting on rice paper. In 2016 an art exhibition curated by B.G. Muhn showed for the first time 70 paintings from artists of North Korea (working in Mansudae Art Studio).

Always the same topics reflected in all arts of Mansudae Art Studio

In addition to packaging and sport representation, the main topics of artistic productions still represents these 4 themes:

  • Education
  • Government
  • Global ideology
  • Idolization of the Kim’s regime

A North Korea movie to watch?

You can watch Comrade Kim Goes Flying. This movie is a perfect example of the image that Kim Jong-un wants to give of his country. He became Leader of North Korea during the same year the movie went public.

This 2012 movie was produced in North Korea. Even though the story is quite naive and excessively positive, if you read between the lines you’ll get a lot of hints about the life over there. The story is about a girl who works in coal mines and dreams of becoming a trapeze artist. She goes to Pyongyang and work hard to achieve her dream. I found especially interesting, the music, clothing, words repeated like “comrade”, the importance of sports and the values of working hard for the country.

English subtitles are displayed and this helps to follow the story even if the scenario is simple (link at the bottom).

Pyongyang architecture in 360° video

I wanted also to know how the country and the capital looked like and during my research I found this 360° video. The city has been almost rebuilt from scratch in the 80’s so it looks quite new.

Again, really colorful. We once more see the signature of Russian Constructivism art movement with its color saturation aspect.

So, put on your VR glasses and start the experience.

World’s First Aerial 360 Video Over North Korea

Watching this video a new question came to mind: Where are citizen?

Art after North Korea

There’s not a lot of stories like Song Byeok’s. He was a propaganda artist in Mansudae Art Studio that grew up in Korea and suffered from the regime losing numerous people of his family. He escaped since more than a decade and works on his art from South Korea. Back in the time he was living in North Korea, his role was to maintain the idolatry of North Korea’s leaders through his creations. Now he is a pop artist and likes trying lots of different ways to tell his story and opinion on the regime.

A lot criticized for the backwardness of his art he learned to stop listening and just creates for himself, like a therapy.

He tells his story in this video below.

Well, I think that it… I feel there’s so much more to learn but for that I would need to go over there. And I let you imagine what people tells me and the way they look at the french woman I am when I talk about this potential trip.

Closing your eyes on something doesn’t make you smarter. It just shows that you’re scared of learning that you could think by yourself.