Just minutes away from Los Angeles, the Wende Museum — located in Culver City — presented North Korean artist Sun Mu’s first US solo exhibition on February 10, 2019.
Born and raised in North Korea and trained to paint state-sponsored propaganda posters, Sun Mu continues to work in the style that he once used to glorify North Korean leaders – only now he turns the propaganda on its head. The artist defected from North Korea during the famine of the 1990s and settled in South Korea where he could freely express himself. Out of concern for the safety of the family he left behind, the artist adopted the pseudonym Sun Mu and refuses to disclose his identity. The exhibition named Upside-Down Propaganda will continue through June, showcasing 16 pieces from the dissident artist’s collection.
Among many North Korean defector artists, Sun Mu is arguably the most notorious, largely thanks to the 2015 documentary film I am Sun Mu which documents his preparations leading up to his Beijing exhibition (which was canceled at the last moment due to North Korea’s persistent protests).
North Korean art remains largely an enigma to the broader American audience, as artistic exchange between the United States and North Korea has been virtually nonexistent throughout history. However, as interest in Soviet-esque cultural artifacts is heightening, exhibitions and events dedicated to North Korean art has started to surface as well.
Artist BG Muhn from Georgetown University organized an exhibition of 60 contemporary North Korean paintings in 2016 at American University’s Katzen Gallery of art in Washington, DC. As a first of its kind in the United States, the exhibition sought to broaden the public’s understanding of North Korean art beyond the propagandistic stigma and towards an understanding of the near-extinct style of socialist realism. More recently this year in April, another prominent propagandists-turned-dissident Song Byeok, known for producing satirical art using North Korea’s ruling culture as motifs, showcased an exhibition in Hawaii.
While North Korea remains a mystery to outsiders due to its decades-long isolationist policy, art provides a glimpse into the lives and minds of its inhabitants.
Brian Kim is participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He holds a master's degree in Korean Language and Asian Studies from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.