North Korea’s biggest export giant statues

North Korea doesnt have much the world wants to buy but one very successful export has been its art The BBCs Lawrence Pollard looks at an unlikely story of North Korean cultural influence and its success in Africa in particular

It may surprise you to know that North Korea would love to carry out your artistic commissions How about a mural a tapestry or a jewel painting coloured with powdered semi-precious stones?

Or something a bit more imposing like a giant bronze statue of that dictator or liberator close to your heart? The Mansudae Art Studio is keen to hear from you

Founded in 1959 it caters for North Koreas considerable domestic propaganda needs The huge statues murals and banners you see being dutifully applauded at military processions – as well as the poster images that surround North Korean daily life – are all made by its 4000 staff

Its in the heart of Pyongyang Mansudae is the name of the district says Pier Luigi Cecioni an Italian who is the sole representative of the art factory to the outside world Actually its more of a campus than a factory more of a studio the biggest in the world

Theyve just produced a giant embroidery for the Benetton fashion family and fitted out a museum in Cambodia but its in Africa that Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) has found the keenest appetite for its work

The export of this bold direct firmly authoritarian style began in the early 1980s as a diplomatic gift to socialist or non-aligned countries from their North Korean brothers More recently its become a valuable source of hard currency with artists and craftsmen from MOP working in Angola Benin Chad the Democratic Republic of Congo Equatorial Guinea Ethiopia and Togo Local media in Zimbabwe report there are two giant Robert Mugabes in storage waiting to commemorate his death And most famously in Senegal the giant African Renaissance Monument was cast on site by Mansudae craftsmen and dedicated in 2010 Its estimated that the studio has earned tens of millions of dollars in this way

North Korean art seems to appeal to African leaders for two reasons First because the price is right Senegal paid for its 49m-high (161ft) statue by giving some land to the North Koreans – who immediately sold it for cash

The second reason is the style The Russians and Chinese dont make that kind of stuff any more says art critic William Feaver The appeal is in the statement of the obvious – and of course size is everything He sees enthusiasm for the style as part of a nation-building process You could think of Mount Rushmore as the American version performing a similar celebration of founding fathers for a relatively new nation keen to assert itself in the world

Just outside the Namibian capital Windhoek is a vast parade ground grandstand and war memorial to that countrys independence struggle – Heroes Acre is another Mansudae Overseas Project Its a giant obelisk above an 11m-high (36ft) bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier – bearing a strong resemblance to Namibias first President Sam Nujoma says the BBCs Frauke Jensen No visitors no tourist buses just a solitary baboon sitting on the side running away as I approached the steps up to the monument

President Nujoma would of course have had a hand in the decision to honour the Unknown Soldier so maybe its a case of killing two birds with one bronze

Whoever he looks like at least the Unknown Soldier looks African The then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade complained that the giant figures in Dakar initially looked too Asian and had them redone The recent (2011) statue of Samora Machel in Maputo Mozambique isnt thought to be a good portrait and Laurent Kabila in Kinshasha DRC (2001) seems to wear an outfit from the Kims tailor

These statues look like theyre made to be toppled says historian Adrian Tinniswood And they look weirdly North Korean Theyre statements of liberation but they represent a failure of confidence – where are the African designers and African sculptors whod be better representing African consciousness?

But what of those North Korean designers and North Korean sculptors and their consciousness? Are they frustrated Picassos forced to churn out party-line art?

Pier Luigi Cecioni has taken some of them round major Italian galleries They know a lot about the classics he says Abstract and conceptual art they find amusing Theyre not scornful or anything like that they just dont see it as necessary They have an enviable position you know – unlike a Western artist they dont have to worry about selling their work they have a salary They are recognised and have privileges The ones I know they seem to live happily they feel part of something

You get a glimpse of their world through the website run by Cecioni It shows quite a variety of medium and subject matter with a bias towards flowers and soldiers These highly skilled craftsmen largely anonymous working for a higher good and not interested in profit inhabit a very different world from artists elsewhere – and not one many would envy

But if your taste – ironic or otherwise – leads you to want a statue in the classic bronze-giant-hailing-a-taxicab pose then who you gonna call?

Mansudae

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