North Korean defector trained in propaganda art now uses it to mock rulers

Sun Mu spreads paper painted with the names Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il over the concrete floor of an art gallery. He lays the broad sheet at the gallery's entrance so that to view his work, visitors must step on the names of North Korea's late leaders, spreading dirt from their shoes into names the artist spent much of his career glorifying.

It is a brief scene in "I Am Sun Mu," a recent documentary about the North Korean defector artist, and in it, Sun Mu shows no sign of trepidation. Yet he says he still has mixed feelings about disparaging the leaders he was raised to think of as gods.

"Every time I step on those names, I feel like I shouldn't," Sun Mu said in an interview. "I was taught not to disrespect them, and that's still embedded in me."

Sun Mu trained as an artist in North Korea, where he painted propaganda posters that glorified the country's ruling dynasty. He fled in 1998 to escape famine and since then has used the same artistic style he learned in his homeland to lampoon those leaders.

"I Am Sun Mu," by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Adam Sjoberg, is the story of his life and work, told around the lead-up to his first exhibition in China in summer 2014. In it, the middle-aged artist and his partners spend months preparing for a large solo exhibition in Beijing, but as word gets out about the provocative images on display, things go wrong as Chinese police pressure the organizers to call off the show.

The film had its world premiere Sept. 17 at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea. The annual festival screens films that explore the theme of the Korean peninsula's division. This year, it took place at Camp Greaves, a former U.S. military base on the south side of the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, the heavily fortified border separating North and South Korea.

Throughout the documentary, Sun Mu is filmed from behind or with his face obscured. His name is a pseudonym and means "no borders." He doesn't appear in public, out of concern for family members still in North Korea. South Korean media often refer to him as "the artist without a face." He and Sjoberg spent time together to build a rapport before filming.

The film features quiet sequences of Sun Mu at work in his studio or at home with his wife and two daughters. "There was a symbiosis in just being a fly on the wall, of experiencing a day in his life," said Sjoberg, whose previous documentary, "Shake the Dust," explored break dancing in developing countries around the world.

Sun Mu, after fleeing North Korea, studied at Hongik University in Seoul, one of South Korea's top art schools. There he learned more contemporary methods and theory that he has fused with his North Korean style.

At first glance, his works look like twisted takes of the propaganda images he produced in North Korea. Sun Mu says that in North Korea only a few official artists are permitted to draw the country's leaders, and that irreverent depictions would lead to severe punishment.

He has drawn many caricatures of the North's ruling dynasty. Instead of looking stately, they appear smug and overweight, often juxtaposed with symbols of Western decadence. In one painting, Kim Jong Il grins while posing in a Creamsicle-colored Adidas jumpsuit.

Like other examples of state propaganda, Sun Mu's works often feature images of children; one depicts a pudgy-cheeked young girl scowling as she sips Coca-Cola through a straw.

It's the irony of using the same techniques to lambaste the dictators that gives Sun Mu's work its power.

"By using the same visual language but … inverting its message, he fundamentally unhinges the propaganda message. Because he knows so well how the propaganda works, he can deploy the same tools to show how sinister its message is," Koen De Ceuster, an expert on North Korean art at Leiden University in the Netherlands, wrote in an email.

"There is an unusual, unsettling emotional depth in the best of his works which make them more than just comments on North Korea but lift them to existential statements," De Ceuster said.

Sun Mu's studio on the outskirts of Seoul is in a converted house. He earns a living from his art and has exhibited in several countries, including the U.S., Norway and Germany, unusual feats for a North Korean defector artist. Because of the small pool of interest in the themes they tend to explore, few North Korean artists have broken into South Korea's art market. Collectors who take interest in their work tend to already have some professional or personal interest in North Korea.

"North Korean refugees have a limited market into which they can sell their ideologically centered art, and propaganda doesn't go down well with collectors or audiences from South Korea," said Keith Howard, a professor of Korean studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Despite having achieved success as an artist and reached a level of material comfort he could never have achieved in North Korea, Sun Mu still struggles with the pain of separation from his parents and other relatives he left behind.

In a powerful scene in the documentary, the artist discusses sadness about his daughter's desire to meet her grandmother in person or through a letter. Sun Mu was driven to paint "The Letter That Cannot Be Sent," depicting the young girl with a letter to her grandmother that she has no way of mailing.

"I expressed the reality of North and South [Korea] through this," Sun Mu says in the film.

Sun Mu says that every Lunar New Year, a major holiday and time for family gatherings, he composes a letter to relatives in the North. In letters that are never sent, he says, he asks about their health and well-being and explains how the reality of the South differs from the vilifying depictions North Koreans see in the state's propaganda. He also asks whether, because of his artwork, his family is being monitored by the government.

Over the years, those letters have remained in Sun Mu's notebooks, but he is hopeful that they won't be there forever.

"Once North Korea opens up," he said, "I'm definitely going to send them."

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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