Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CNN on North Korean fine art

Beijing, China (CNN) — Tucked in a quiet corner of Beijing's trendy art district, known as 798, a gallery offers an unusual collection of artworks. The oil paintings, ceramics and natural stones are staid compared to many of the avant-garde exhibits in the other galleries of the sprawling art district. But then again, these are works by artists who may not know much about the international art world: They live in North Korea.

The Beijing-based Jinghesheng Investment Company has partnered with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea's formal name, to exhibit -- and sell -- 60 oil paintings and 30 traditional Korean ink paintings.

"They were all carefully selected by the DPRK's Ministry of Culture," said exhibit director Li Xuemei. Although North Korean artworks may be available in some galleries in China and other countries, said Li, "you don't really know where they came from, but ours are surely authentic artworks from DPRK."

Inside a hall, the gallery showcases works of twenty North Korean artists affiliated with museums and art academies in Pyongyang. Li said the gallery receives as many as 100 visitors a day on the weekend and about 60 on weekdays.

The pieces depict landscapes and modern life. Many were painted by seasoned Pyongyang artists who hold honorific titles as "People's Artists" and "Merit Artists."

One oil painting, a socialist realist piece entitled "Huge Waves in the East Sea," is three meters high and ten meters long and covers an entire wall of the gallery. Four artists collaborated on the painting using a wide scope of greens and blues to create textured and turbulent waves crashing into taupe gray rocks against a backdrop of blue sky.

The collection also includes watercolors, elegant portraits of Korean women in modern and traditional dress and wildlife.

Li said the artwork is only sold to elite customers, typically Chinese entrepreneurs in affluent cities like Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Dalian. She said 30 percent of the works on display have already been sold, but she declines to quote any prices.

"Many people chose to collect this art because North Korea is a country still closed to the outside world, although it is seeking to open up in the future," Li said. "This makes North Korean artworks a good investment. Some artists have already passed away, making their work more unique and valuable."

While the arts' value may increase over time, their North Korean artists will not see any cash returns.

"In North Korea," Li said, "art is not private property and the value made from the sales will go directly to the state."

One artist and three North Korean government officials flew into Beijing to attend the opening of the show but stayed away from the media and declined to be interviewed.

Following United States special envoy Stephen Bosworth's visit to Pyongyang in December, speculation about the future direction of the communist state is high.

In October, North Korean leader Kim Jung Il indicated that Pyongyang was willing to return to multilateral talks on its nuclear program on condition that there would be progress in direct talks between North Korea and the United States. It remains unclear if Bosworth's trip will lead to a resumption of the six-party talks and further easing of tensions in the Korean peninsula.

Exhibits of North Korean art are rare, even in neighboring China, its closest ally. China and North Korea officially established diplomatic ties 60 years ago. To mark the anniversary, Beijing held two art exhibitions of North Korean embroidery and jewelry over the summer.

While contemporary North Korean art is typically laden with a heavy message, the artworks showcased in the 798 art district leaves out traces of politics or propaganda. New collections of North Korean art will rotate through the gallery until in the coming months.

"We'll show artworks on rotation," Li said. "We'll show different styles in the next collection."

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