The freedom to create for no one else: Sun Mu, Formerly a North Korean propaganda artist, defector now embraces self-reflection

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The freedom to create for no one else: Sun Mu, Formerly a North Korean propaganda artist, defector now embraces self-reflection


“Fly 2” (2016) by Sun Mu [ALTERNATIVE SPACE LOOP]

Artist Sun Mu does not think political ideology is all that important.

Neither does he want unification just for the sake of unification.

“It’s nonsense,” he said. “How can there be a unification without exchanges, dialogue and getting to know each other. Unification [without these] just does not make any sense.”

The artist’s feelings are a bit ironic, given that the whole reason Sun Mu became internationally famous in the first place is because he is a defector from North Korea.

The former propaganda artist’s works are defined by some as “political pop art” and leave a powerful impression by featuring symbols of Communism, like North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, juxtaposed with symbols of Western capitalism like a Coca Cola bottle or Donald Duck.

“Ideology is not important in a person’s daily life,” artist Sun Mu told Korea JoongAng Daily in a recent interview.

Still, the artist says when he draws the face of Kim Il Sung, he feels a little strange, partly because you are not supposed to draw his face in the Communist country. “It’s because I grew up with such respect and gratitude for him.”

The artist’s most recent solo exhibition, “If That Were What Happiness Is,” included a painting with Kim Il Sung’s face on it titled “God.” The exhibition, held at Alternative Space Loop in Seoul, concluded on Aug. 28, and attempted to delve into the mind and thoughts of the artist, not necessarily his North Korean background, through his latest works.


From left: “Ideology 5” (2013); “Ideology” (2016); “An Angel’s Worry” (2012) [ALTERNATIVE SPACE LOOP]

In fact, many of his works on display featured children. “I myself have two kids,” he said. “And children are the future, the future of both South and North Korea.” Some pieces feature North Korean children singers with red scarfs. Sun Mu, himself, was part of children’s choir. He started singing “to please Kim Il Sung,” and that’s also why he started painting.

Sun Mu - a pseudonym he uses to protect him and his family still in North Korea that roughly translates to “No Lines” - also shared his shock when he first came to South Korea in 1998 and studied art at Hongik University. “I was baffled,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the ‘rotten capitalism’ is that I heard about up there.’” He referred to North Korea with words “up” or “upper neighborhood.”

“But as the years went by, I learned to accept [contemporary art],” he said.

And he seemed to be enjoying the freedom that contemporary art provides to the fullest, relishing in not being told what he was allowed and not allowed to draw.

“Initially, I used to paint with a sense of duty [to illustrate Korea’s division or hope for unification],” he said. “But I learned that too represents the interests of a certain group and so I don’t paint with that feeling anymore.”

At the latest exhibition, there was a screening of a documentary film, “I Am Sun Mu,” which portrays the days leading up to his solo exhibition in Beijing in 2014 and how the Chinese government sent police to block it.

As a result of that, about 70 of his works that were to be exhibited at the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing are currently being kept in storage by the government. The artist says he’s still trying to get them back.

The film premiered at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in 2015.

“I was surprised that they would go that far [to stop the exhibition],” he said about the incident. But when asked if he will once again attempt to hold an exhibition in China if an opportunity comes, he said yes.

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