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Socialist propaganda with artistic flair

HONG KONG (SE): An exhibition of political or propaganda posters premiered at the Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong on November 28 gives a rare glimpse into life as it was and still is in the space of land cramped between the demilitarised zone separating it from the Republic of Korea and the Yalu River from the People’s Republic of China.
Curated by Kathi Zellweger, the exhibition of some 25 posters shows something of the ambition and dominance of the father of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, and the contribution to everyday life expected from the hermit land’s citizens.
As one of a handful of westerners to have had the opportunity of regular contact inside North Korea, Zellweger is well qualified to tell the story.
Coming to Hong Kong in 1978 as an aid worker for Caritas Switzerland, it was at first life among the refugees from Vietnam, then as China opened up somewhat in 1980, it was work among people with disabilities and literacy programmes for women on the mainland, and finally in 1995, as a representative of Caritas International, she made the first of what she estimates to have been almost 100 visits to Pyongyang.
Arriving at a significant moment in the history of North Korea after devastating floods had prompted Pyongyang to ask for international assistance from the United Nations for the first time, Zellweger, as a Swiss national, joined a government mission.
The floods were followed by a great famine, which Zellweger remembers as a time of terrible suffering, with relief mainly coming from South Korea, which opened its pocket book for its brothers and sisters in need.
Zellweger continued this work under the Caritas banner until 2006, when as a representative of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which is attached to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, she moved to Pyongyang on a permanent basis for the following six years.
Although the sight of a blond-haired woman was still a novelty in the North Korea of those days, she pursued her interest in the country’s history, development and culture, with a particular interest in the political posters that dot the landscape proclaiming development of industry, living conditions, agriculture and prominently, leadership of the Communist Party.
“Some of these can be bought legally,” Zellweger explained at the premiere of her exhibition, which was sponsored by the Swiss Consulate General to Hong Kong. “I bought all the posters on display from art galleries.”
However, she explained that while posters proclaiming a better life and increased production are readily available, their counterparts with tough or aggressive political messages are not.
Drawing attention to the colour coding used in the posters, Zellweger explained that those promoting agriculture that mostly feature attractive young women come in the soft hues of yellow and green, with the all-important slogans in blue.
“These also reflect that most agricultural workers are women,” she noted, while pointing out that heavy industry remains the domain of men and those posters use the darker colours with aggressive red slogans to put their message of the battlefields of class struggle and conquering western influence across.
Zellweger added that during a recent trip to Pyongyang she noticed posters condemning the aggression of the United States of America (US), which prominently proclaim in dark black letters is within the range of North Korean warheads and will be in flames should the current leader, Kim Jong-un, not be able to achieve his ambition of international recognition as a nuclear power.
But maybe the most surprising aspect for an outsider is the high end art work contained in the posters. Printed on high quality material, all are originally hand drawings and display a well-developed art form that allows cultivation of rice to be morphed with cultivation of socialism.
All the posters are state commissioned, as with everything in North Korea, and are produced by well trained artists. “I have never heard of any independent artist in North Korea,” Zellweger noted, “probably because it would be impossible to make a living that way.”
But she pointed out that there is such a thing as North Korean art and, although all works are state-commissioned, it is of high artistic quality and contains much beauty.
But beauty alone is not sufficient for the purpose of the posters. Slogans are vital and as with all slogans must be short, clippie and to the point. While not quite employing the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid), the posters do keep their simplicity of communication, but their overall message is far from stupid, with well thought out balanced phrases.
Although they may lose their brevity in translation, the one-liners carry messages like, “Let us build a pleasant socialist nation with a landscape as beautiful as golden tapestry.”
Yet others say, “Better manage Pyongyang, capital of the revolution,” “More electricity for battlefields where we are breaking new ground,” or “Rice is socialism.”
Some more pointed ones proclaim, “Let us further enshrine the vitality of the Party’s new potato farming policy” or simply, “Let us concentrate on agriculture.”
Recreation and sport are not forgotten and fun things for children like spinning tops or skipping are promoted along with the traditional sports of wrestling and gymnastics.
Somewhat betraying the brevity of the clever slogans on the posters, the exhibition is running under the theme of North Korea’s public face: Twentieth century propaganda posters from the Zellweger Collection.
All artists are well trained, spending at least seven or so years in some form of art school before they are allowed to present in public and, apart from their ideology, the posters do present an overall picture of daily life north of the demilitarised zone and the south of the Yalu River.
However, their work is not only a product of beauty, but by promoting correct forms of socialism are an historical record of the socio-political and economic policies from the leader to the people.
Daily activities are aligned with political belief and since little is left to the imagination provide a record of life in the urban and rural areas that few outsiders have had the opportunity to witness first hand.
Nevertheless, Zellweger says that witnessing from an outside perspective can also be problematic. She explains that the government keeps close tabs on where foreigners go and what they see, but little by little her people-to-people contacts have expanded over the past 20 years.
“There is a difference between observing freely and being shown,” she told the Sunday Examiner, adding that as an aid worker this complicates efforts to shift the involvement from a humanitarian aid basis to a development cooperation model.
Although she cannot remember when she bought her first poster, Zellweger said she never intended to make a collection; that sort of just happened, but the exhibition in Hong Kong shows a different side to life from the tough military images of guns and clenched fists that occasionally make their way into the western media.
Zellweger describes the name of the game as getting to care about the 24 million North Korean people. “People are people,” she says. “They have the same hopes and dreams we do. There isn’t that much difference except they had a terrible struggle to get by and we’ve been lucky.”
The exhibition will run until January 28 and although the North Korean Consulate General did not send a diplomatic representation to the premiere of the exhibition, the Swiss consul general, Reto Renggli, said he has learned that it is happy for it to go ahead.
Zellweger has been highly decorated for her almost 40 years working in international aid, which has mostly focussed on sustainability in agriculture and food security, as well as income generation and individual learning.
She is a fellow at Stanford University in the US and has been decorated by the Holy See, something for which, as a Christian of a different persuasion, she is particularly proud.

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