“How can I ignore the reality of the North, where my parents are still suffering? I would like to believe that art can change the world in whatever little way it can.”
Having been trained as a propaganda artist in North Korea, Sun Mu fled his hometown to avoid famine. He arrived in Seoul in 2001 and was unwilling to give up his trade as an artist. However, he was unsure how his training and style would be relevant in his new surroundings. It was after a while that the artist realised that the same treatment he used to glorify North Korea’s leaders on propaganda posters back home would, when shown in a different context, result in an ironic critique of the nation that suppresses its people.
Often referred to as the “faceless painter”, the North Korean artist who goes by the pseudonym Sun Mu is a defector who creates hard hitting works, criticising one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The artist, whose name is a combination of two Korean words meaning ‘The Absence of Borders’ refrains from having any photographs taken of his face in order to protect his family who remain subjected to life under the regime.
“In North Korea art exists to promote political propaganda. And North Koreans exist to promote the regime. Now my mission is to describe how life is for North Koreans, how painful it is through art.”
His exhibition in 2007 brought the artist international recognition and he has since been invited to show his work at galleries around the world. In his paintings which apply the same propagandistic style, Sun Mu depicts images of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, a subject considered sacred which only a few artists are authorised to paint. However, Sun Mu’s depictions of the Kims are unlike any official portraits you would see created under the regime. The artist paints Kim Jong-Il not in his trademark Mao outfit, but instead in sports gear like a Nike jacket or Adidas track pants.
When exhibiting his work, the artist wears a cotton hat which he pulls down over his face in order to avoid being recognised out of fear for his family still living in North Korea. His concern for their safety comes as a reaction to the three-generation rule applied in North Korea which punishes the entire family of a defector if their crime is seen as an affront to the state. Defection alone is punishable by death and Sun Mu’s role as a critic of the regime would be considered as a major offense.
Art Represent is extremely proud to be working with Sun Mu, an artist who has the threat of execution looming over his head but who uses his art not just to defy those he once worshipped but to provide his audience with an unparalleled insight into what life is like in North Korea. You can take a look at his works here:
On Friday 20th November, The Frontline Club will screen Adam Sjöberg’s ‘I Am Sun Mu’ followed by a Q&A with the director.
With remarkable access to a notorious figure who must carefully guard his identity, Sjöberg brings us into a private world, revealing the stakes involved in countering the North Korean regime.
- Edited by George King