North Korea: A Unique Country

Imago Mundi

Contemporary Artists from North Korea

“Today, if we talk about art, - comments Luciano Benetton, the creator of Imago Mundi - despite the absence of a true market, North Korea can count on one of the leading production centres in the world, perhaps the largest: the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, founded in November 1959 in a city that was recovering from the terrible civil war. This 120 thousand square metre centre, which employs four thousand North Koreans, including a thousand artists selected from the best academies, produces the majority of the country’s art, including the great celebrative works. The country’s deep cultural isolation, in which the visual arts have preserved the techniques and materials of the past, is also reflected in the Imago Mundi collection, rich in artistic skill and pure beauty: from the coloured inks on paper to oil painting, from Jewel Painting to posters, from embroidery (a magnificent surprise for the spoiled Western eye) to refined calligraphy.”

Cha Yong Ho - Azalea (2013)

“North Korean art – explain the curators Pier Luigi Cecioni and Eugenio Cecioni - is contemporary by definition in the sense that it is created today, but there is no contemporary experimentation as we understand it in the West. The artists’ research is directed more towards technical competence and mastery than content. The conceptual and the abstract, even when artists come across it on rare trips to the West or in publications, are of no interest: a common reaction in the face of such works is sincere, good-natured fun, not mockery. One does not sense any echo of the debate on contemporary art that characterizes the so-called international art scene. Art is an essential part of every culture, it is an expression and representation thereof: North Korea has had significant contact with only a handful of countries and this isolation has preserved its native footprint, has preserved its traditions.”

Kim Mun Gyu - Evening on Taedong River (2013)

Jin Sok - Woman (2013)

Jo Won Il - Let Us Make Sports Popular in Every Company (2013)

The curators consider the process that allowed the collection of the artworks for Imago Mundi: “Finding the works shown here was, in a certain sense, simple. The vast majority of the best North Korean artists work within the Mansudae Art Studio. After a detailed discussion in Pyongyang, the Mansudae Art Studio agreed to participate and selected the artists, each of whom then decided what they wished to accomplish. A single Korean counterpart was all that was needed. This collection, with its considerable number of works (albeit in a small format) that will remain permanently in the West and a catalogue of this importance, is a particularly significant testimony to North Korean art and the quality of what is probably the largest centre of artistic production in the world.”

Choe Chol Rim - Feeling of Moonlight (2013)

Kim Hong Hu - Wave (2013)

Choe Son Hui - Boy (2013)


Among the works, those created using the Chosonhwa technique, ink on paper, and Jewel Painting, are of particular interest. Jewel Painting, in Korean Chosun-bosukhwa, is a very distinctive technique using precious or semiprecious stones that are crushed, applied to a board, or more rarely a canvas, using glue and without the use of additional color. It is a highly laborious technique. The subjects are almost exclusively natural, with occasional human figures.

Kim Jong A - Wild Grapes (2013)

Yu Chol - Wilderness (2013)

Kim Won Chol - Smelter (2013)


The artists who participated in the Imago Mundi project all work in the enormous Mansudae Art Studio complex, which – as Yang Byong Su, an art critic at the studio explains – “is divided into creative units dedicated to different artistic disciplines, as well as offering technical support that includes the installation of monumental works and the management of overseas relations.”

Kim Chol Man - Sunset (2013)

Kim Chol Hui - Morning on the Village Road (2013)

Ri Bong Suk - The Woman is Like the Flower (2013)


The 113 North Korean artists in the Imago Mundi project operated in this context characterized by a broad organizational structure. “Men and women, young and old, - summarizes Luciano Benetton - have composed a unique and surprising collection. In a certain sense suspended in time but, paradoxically, capable of helping us rediscover art as a vehicle for understanding and communication which, with its universal language, can clarify and stimulate, can bring us closer, promote understanding and the acceptance of differences. Art that can contribute to the opening of new roads. Even astride the thirty-eighth parallel.”

Kang TaeHong - Chongsokjong (2013)

Credits: Story

Project management
Pier Luigi Cecioni

Organization
Valentina Granzotto

Editorial coordination
Enrico Bossan

Texts
Luciano Benetton
Pier Luigi Cecioni / Eugenio Cecioni
Yang Byong Su

Editing and translation
Emma Cole
Anna Franchin
Pietro Valdatta
Benedetta Merlini (Korean)
Santosh Kumar Ranjan (Korean)

Art direction
Namyoung An

Photography
Marco Zanin

Production
Marco Pavan

Cover
Kim Yong Bom - Please Fly High

Special Thanks to
Kim Sung Min
Mansudae Art Studio Vice-President in charge of Art, People’s Artist

Ri Song Gun
Mansudae Art Studio Korean Painting Unit Director, Merited Artist

Han Song Gyu
Mansudae Art Studio Graphics Art Unit Director, Merited Artist

Hong Gun Chan
Mansudae Art Studio Various Kinds of Art Unit Director, Merited Artist

Sin Bong Hwa
Mansudae Art Studio Korean Jewel Painting Unit Director, People’s Artist

Kim Mi Ran
Mansudae Art Studio Embroidery Unit Director, Merited Artist

So Yong Su
Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies Director

Kim Sun Gum
Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies Manager

Elena Dall’Armi for her essential contribution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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