Art Trade

North Korea Bags $5 Million for Building Two Mugabe Statues


A bronze statue depicting the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) and his father Kim Il Sung inside the grounds of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang

Photograph by Martin Sasse/Laif/Redux

A bronze statue depicting the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) and his father Kim Il Sung inside the grounds of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang

North Korea may be cut off from much of the world, but the so-called Hermit Kingdom manages to run a thriving multimillion-dollar business building monuments, statues, museums, sports stadiums, and more for a long list of countries, many of them in Africa. Its most recent deal fetched $5 million for two statues of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime president, to mark the leader’s 90th birthday.

The larger of the two Mugabe works, a 30-foot-tall bronze sculpture worth about $3.5 million, will be prominently displayed in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, according to African news site Telescope News. The smaller effigy, worth $1.5 million, will be placed in a museum in Mugabe’s rural hometown of Zvimba. Commissioned in 2009, the statues are said to be ready for delivery, according to the Zimbabwe news service Bulawayo24.

Statues and monuments are a specialty in North Korea, where an outsize portion of state funds goes for propaganda production—paintings, murals, posters, billboards, and Soviet-style monuments. Most are created by North Korea’s Mansudae Art Studio, profiled in Bloomberg Businessweek last year. Possibly the largest art factory in the world, Mansudae claims to employ 4,000 North Koreans, including 1,000 artists. Its foreign business branch, Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies, has completed major projects for countries looking to build big and cheap. Customers include Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Benin, Cambodia, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Germany, Malaysia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, Syria, and Togo, according to Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Zimbabwe is a repeat client, though its past transactions with North Korea have generated plenty of controversy. In 2010, protests broke out after government officials contracted with Mansudae to build two statues of former Vice President Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo. Not surprisingly, the move offended those who say thousands of Zimbabweans were raped and massacred in the 1980s by government troops who had received training from North Korea. The Mugabe statues may also face public criticism, especially as the $5 million purchase comes amid national economic troubles.

The new monuments will not be erected until after Mugabe’s death, writes Bulawayo24. Those curious to see what they might look like can view Mansudae’s other projects and its many effigies built for North Korea’s Great, Dear, and Supreme Leaders (also known as Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un). After all, the art factory’s national and international work is often quite similar, sometimes to the dismay of foreign clients.

Hopefully North Korea’s craftsman have been more attentive to Mugabe’s features than they were when designing Senegal’s 164-foot-tall African Renaissance monument. That monolith, which depicts an African family rendered à la socialist realism, had to be retouched. “It had to have African heads, not Asian,” the country’s president said at the time.

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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