North Korea’s monumental gifts to Africa
INTERNATIONAL FRIENDSHIP: THE GIFTS FROM AFRICA. BY CHE ONEJOON. Kehrer, 2021. 192 pages.
ON OCTOBER 13, 2010, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade stood at Collines des Mamelles—twin hills that overlook the Atlantic Ocean and an important point of departure to the Americas from the entrepôt of the Cape Verde Peninsula during the transatlantic slave trade—and welcomed 163 Haitian university students who would be receiving free education after the catastrophic earthquake that January. The president was an impassioned rhetorical advocate for Haiti following the disaster. Days after the earthquake, he proposed a massive program that would naturalize and resettle thousands of refugees, and even advanced the idea of creating a new state for Haitians in “the land of their ancestors”—a project Wade explicitly compared to the founding of Israel.
Six months earlier, a 161-foot-tall, $27 million statue depicting a sky-facing mother, father, and child, angled as though on a stairway to the heavens, was unveiled at that same promontory. The Black family represented, per the president, “an Africa emerging from the bowels of the earth, leaving obscurantism to go towards the light.” President Wade stood at the foot of this monolith, named the African Renaissance Monument, noting that “the return of young Haitians in the land of their ancestors is a great victory for Africa, a victory for black people.” “Vive l’Afrique éternelle, vive le panafricanisme,” he proclaimed. The statue directly invokes a metaphor of rebirth, popularized by Senegalese anthropologist and historian Cheikh Anta Diop in the 1940s, in which artistic, political, and cultural consciousnesses would be mobilized in service of continental uplift. But the president’s platitudes about Pan-Africanism and diasporic solidarity belie a fraught history behind the political imaginary of this renaissance and its grandiose mirage on the Mamelles.
The monument, we learn in Wole Soyinka’s 2019 book Beyond Aesthetics, was built by the Mansudae Overseas Project, the international branch of the Pyongyang-based Mansudae Art Studios. This is not a controversy in itself. But while recalling a 2018 visit to the studio-gallery of the late world-renowned Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, Soyinka describes his shock at discovering a maquette depicting an eerily familiar family: mother, father, and child. He was told by the curator that Sow was originally commissioned to create the Mamelles sculpture, but that president Wade, who owns 35 percent of the monument’s copyright, had rejected Sow’s model, preferring the North Korean one instead for its familiar, universalist design, which could be embraced and appropriated by other postcolonial states. (In response, Sow disavowed the monumental project, bitterly describing it as the “aesthetically childish and banal” hobbyhorse of an unpopular president desperate to leave behind some kind of “concrete legacy.”)
Che’s photographs document the aesthetic inheritance of Cold War–era South-South relations, nurtured by a shared opposition to Western capitalism.
This divisive symbol of national harmony is one of the many monuments that appear in Seoul-based interdisciplinary artist Che Onejoon’s new monograph, International Friendship: The Gifts from Africa, which documents Mansudae’s vexed presence across the African continent. Che became engrossed by the history of the Mansudae Art Studios, despite (or perhaps because of) the challenges of researching the organization from South Korea, whose government heavily limits what information about the North is available online. Refusing anticommunist bromides as well as romantic constructions of “Third World” solidarity, Che deftly and honestly accounts for political motivations animating North Korea’s “gift-giving,” as well as the violence underpinning African leaders’ ambitions and their entanglements with political-historical myth.
Amassed while traveling to Senegal, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Gabon, and Zimbabwe, Che’s photographs document the aesthetic inheritance of Cold War–era South-South relations, nurtured by a shared opposition to Western capitalism. Begun as an organ for domestic propaganda in 1959 by Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of North Korea, the Mansudae Art Studio is perhaps the largest art factory in the world, employing around four thousand people. The studio is comprised of fourteen creative groups organized by medium, including oil paintings, woodcuts, ceramics, and, of course, bronze sculptures. Che considers the company’s relationship with Africa as a pragmatic exportation of Jucheism, North Korea’s state ideology rooted in the three tenets of political independence, military self-reliance, and economic autonomy. Juche architecture, as supreme leader and amateur architectural theorist Kim Jong Il wrote in a 1991 treatise on the subject, systematizes “the relationships between architecture and society, and between architecture and man” as established by the state through the Workers’ Party.
In his 2019 book Monuments of Power, Tycho van der Hoog notes that midcentury North Korean public art and architectonics differ from versions in the Soviet Union and China because of the “near total destruction of Pyongyang during the Korean War,” which “meant a tabula rasa for city planners.” The image of North Korea literally constructing itself from the rubble of devastating aerial bombing campaigns by the United States undoubtedly resonated with African nationalist leaders, who were also attempting to chart a course for their infant nations. And in supporting anti-imperialist movements in Asia, Latin America, and Africa through its modeling of “proletarian internationalism,” the state hoped to gain allies in the United Nations as it attempted to end US domination both within the institution and on the Korean peninsula. The Mansudae Overseas Project was opened in 1974 as a sub-bureau of the larger studio, tasked with creating statues as gifts to African states. (Countries are presently billed for the monuments because they are a critical source of earning the state foreign currency.)
Most of the monuments portrayed in International Friendship are giant bronze statues bearing some alleged resemblance to a leader. Shooting just the face and raised hand of a statue of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of an independent Democratic Republic of Congo, Che invites us to study the leader’s facial expression, the etched textures of his skin and hair. By contrast, his photograph of the eighteen-foot Three Dikgosi Monument, 2015, seen alongside construction in Gaborone’s central business district, brings the three monumentalized dikgosi—the pluralized Setswana word for “chief” or “king,” in this case Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse, Sebele I of the Bakwena, and Khama III of the Bangwato—into the present as fathers of an independent Bechuanaland-cum-Botswana. Their adornment in European fineries and the upward tilt of their chins and sight lines—perhaps the default posture of socialist realism—represent the dignity of their collective quest for self-determination, which eventually came in 1966, seventy-five years after the leaders’ visit to Britain to make the case for independence directly to Queen Victoria.
When Che first photographed the Namibian Independence Memorial Museum in 2013, it was not yet finished; it would be inaugurated in March of the following year. Clashing with the surrounding colonial-era buildings, the Independence Museum, fittingly located on Robert Mugabe Avenue, is a 140-foot-tall architectural creation beyond stylistic classification. According to Mozambican architect Maria Gabriela C. Aragão, the building’s aesthetics contain both a futurism and a blandness, perhaps “intended as a purposeful move to break free of pre-independence history.” The “only clear message” that the triangular glass structure sends, she writes, “is strength,” its imposing proportions aspiring “to the same eternal quality as the pyramids in Giza or the Rock-Hewn Churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.”
In recent photographs of the building, a statue of Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president, stands in front, gripping a copy of the Namibian constitution raised to the sky. As Che notes, Nujoma was close friends with Kim Il Sung and as a result, Namibia and North Korea have enjoyed friendly diplomatic relations since North Korea’s support for the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia during the African nation’s independence struggle. Nujoma even granted North Korea a monopoly on government buildings—to much criticism, given the astronomical cost of commissioning the foreign studio over local or regional talent. The Mansudae Overseas Project also built the $28 million State House, the residency of the Namibian president, near the end of Nujoma’s term in 2002. His statue occupies the site previously inhabited by the Reiterdenkmal, a German-built equestrian monument commemorating German civilians and soldiers killed during the 1904–07 Herero Wars, a genocidal campaign in which over 70 percent of Ovaherero and 50 percent of Nama Indigenous peoples were killed by imperial German forces. This monument thus marks a displacement of Eurocolonial remembering by anticolonial state iconography, complemented by the presence of The Genocide Statue on the southern end of the museum-memorial complex. Appropriately located in front of Alta Feste, the fortress that once headquartered the German forces, the statue depicts a man and woman, their wrist shackles broken and fists raised, embracing atop a plinth whose back and front respectively show reliefs of emaciated genocide survivors and two armed Schutztruppe soldiers hanging three Indigenous people. Although the Namibian government has long excluded Ovaherero and Nama communities from its genocide recognition and reparations negotiations with Germany, the plinth nevertheless reads “Their Blood Waters Our Freedom” in raised black letters, anchoring the identities and futurities of all Namibians in the Ovaherero and Nama dead.
Modeled after the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery in Pyongyang’s Taesŏng District, Zimbabwe’s National Heroes Acre numbers among the Mansudae Overseas Project’s earlier African monuments. Construction of the fifty-seven-acre site began in September 1981, a year after Zimbabwe’s independence. The monument, which takes the shape of two back-to-back AK-47s, commemorates Patriotic Front guerrillas killed during the liberation struggle—from the militaries of both the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and its breakaway rival party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Oriented toward the Soviet ideology of mobilizing urban workers, ZAPU organized its base around Bulawayo, the largest city in Zimbabwe’s southwestern Matabeleland region and the country’s historical industrial center, whereas ZANU, aligned with the People’s Republic of China, sought to organize agriculturalists. Unsurprisingly, most of the people who have attained hero status were members or sympathizers of Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU party. In August 1981, one month before construction on the Heroes Acre began and amid growing factional tensions within the new Zimbabwean National Army, president Mugabe announced the creation of a new counterinsurgency unit—a Fifth Brigade that operated outside of normal military chains of command and reported directly to the president. The Fifth Brigade, armed and trained by North Korea, was turned onto Ndebele civilians in Matabeleland and the Midlands in an operation called Gukurahundi. While it purported to target so-called dissidents in the army, entire civilian populations were subjected to pogroms, unlawful detentions, sexual violence, assaults, reeducation camps, summary executions, and other genocidal brutalities resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Ndebele people.
The campaign endured from January 1983 until the 1987 signing of the Unity Accords, which nominally reassembled ZANU and ZAPU into ZANU-PF—the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front—returning, on paper, to the coalition that existed during the Second Chimurenga (the Shona word for “revolutionary struggle,” which is used in nationalist discourses rather than the Ndebele “Umvukela”). In actuality, the agreement meant the functional dissolution of ZAPU and delivered a final political humiliation to Joshua Nkomo, the party’s founder and himself a Ndebele person. (Mugabe, of course, was Shona.) The Mansudae statue of Nkomo in Bulawayo, Matabeleland’s largest city and the country’s second-largest, is mired in this history of ethnic violence and the successful consolidation of state power by Mugabe, who singularly helmed the ruling party and the state from independence until his deposition in a 2017 coup d’état. The bronze statue’s restrained portrayal of Nkomo is atypical of Mansudae’s honorific monuments. His hands are by his sides, and in one he holds his trademark short induku (a Ndebele variant of the knobkerrie, a small wooden club), a nod to his reverence for traditional religious practices. Originally erected in August 2010, the statue was criticized because its pedestal was far too small, prompting his family to describe it as “pathetic, a doll or a caricature.” Che’s book includes the disappointed and insulted remarks of Nkomo’s son and current ZAPU leader, Sibangilizwe Michael Nkomo, who lamented that the government was “once more” turning to Pyongyang when there were Zimbabwean or other African artists who could have done the work. As with The Renaissance Monument, there was additional controversy over the fact that a local artist, David Mutasa, had initially been awarded the tender for the project. Amid a parliamentary debate over government corruption and protest from Bulawayo-based civil society groups, the statue was removed the following month. It was re-erected, quite pointedly, on Unity Day in 2013, this time with a significantly larger pedestal.
Che traces this spatial contestation by photographing the monument at different points in time: the standing and occasionally shrouded effigy removed from its plinth, in a lot behind the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo; the abandoned pedestal plastered with election posters of Mugabe’s face; and finally, the remounted statue in its grandeur in the city’s central business district. Che’s photographs lay bare wounds that have yet to close: debates over the Gukurahundi massacres and their denials by its government perpetrators, the state’s enshrinement of Mugabe over Nkomo as the “father of the nation,” and Zimbabwe as a country by and for Shona over Ndebele people.
Che’s book, in his own words, aspires to “break free from a kind of Orientalism toward North Korea, caused by misunderstanding and ignorance of the country.” He does this by identifying the political functionality of structures frequently derided as gratuitous spectacle. Sensitive to the delicate realpolitikal formations and nostalgias that suffuse our present (and often taken for granted) material landscape, as well as to recusant imaginaries displaced by or subsumed into nationalist projects, International Friendship carefully troubles state rhetorics of solidarity without discarding the world-making potential of shared struggle.
In the monograph’s final essay, art critic Sean O’Toole draws attention to two recent public contestations over monuments and their positioning within national memory: the toppling of Cecil Rhodes’s statue on the University of Cape Town’s campus in 2015 and the 2020 decapitation of J.M. Swan’s bust of Rhodes at his namesake memorial, both part of an international racial justice movement demanding the removal of statues of colonialists and slavers. O’Toole invokes future Mozambican president Samora Machel’s ambitious attempts to create an Indigenous aesthetic while engaged in the Liberation Front of Mozambique’s insurgency against Portuguese colonial rule in the mid-1960s. Through institutionalized patronage, Machel championed a distinct local tradition of artisanal blackwood sculpture, establishing an artists’ cooperative of sixty-two Makonde-sculptors-cum-guerrilla-fighters whose organization mirrored the burgeoning nation’s guiding ideologies of collectivized creation. Despite the failure of Machel’s campaign, his championship of native artisanal production and African vernacularity stands in stark contrast to African leaders commissioning Mansudae to make dozens of “universally” legible monuments. Soyinka roundly criticized their homogenizing aesthetic, writing that “not one single aspect of sculptural figuration bears the slightest resemblance to anything African—certainly not in concept, style, form, not even gesture.”
As with any other marking of land, monuments are spatializations of power, a way to construct public memory and citizenship via the nation-state. But as Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and other movements and actions of dismantlement have reminded us, the cartography of memory is anything but fixed.