Ex-North Korea propaganda artist Song Byeok debuts in US


Next month, audiences in the US will get their first chance to see the work of Korean painter and satirist Song Byeok, a former North Korean propaganda artist who turned his state-sponsored talents against the repressive state.

Twenty of Song’s colorful acrylic paintings — including six not yet seen by the public — will be showing from February 17 to 26 at The Goat Farm visual and performing arts center in Atlanta.

Song’s works draw on the visual themes of North Korea’s humorless propaganda machine, crossing them with a vivid palette and a playful absurdity.

More from GlobalPost: In-depth piece on Song Byeok

One of the key works from his inaugural exhibition put the late Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s grinning face on top of a Marilyn Monroe figure striking her famous pose over a subway updraft. As he said last year, both figures in the painting were clearly trying to “hide something.”

And Song should know: as a propagandist for the regime, he was once complicit in the cover-up. Working from strict “models” handed down by the North Korean authorities, Song and his fellow artists were responsible for bolstering the Kim dynasty’s maniacal personality cult, producing posters and billboards that glorified the North Korean revolution and its totemic leaders.

It wasn’t until he tried leaving the paradise of juche — in response to a devastating famine — that he started to question the official story.

“I didn’t know that the regime was this bad,” he told me during an interview in Seoul in April. “I’d been painting these happy posters all this time, and I didn’t realize this evil stuff had been going on.”

When he reached Seoul in 2002, he was determined to fight back. Using the tools that he developed in the propaganda studios, Song found ways to skewer the pretensions of the North Korean regime.

The result — a colorful form of agit-pop — is his attempt to lay bare the mainsprings of the world’s last truly Orwellian state.

Anthony Harper, director of The Goat Farm, said Song’s work was vital in undercutting a regime that “survives off of repression, the control of information and a massive untruth.”

“Song’s art offers a rare lens that allows the viewer to see a piece of the truth that would normally carry a hefty penalty for disloyalty,” he said.

More details on the Atlanta exhibition are available here. On Feb. 21, Song will also appear at Emory University to lecture about his life and work.

More from GlobalPost: In-depth series on North Korea after Kim Jong Il

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