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Sarah Stanley: Profile of North Korean artist Sun Mu

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Today at The Federalist, Acton associate editor Sarah Stanley penned an article profiling an artist from North Korea who goes by the name of Sun Mu. This profile is inspired by a recent documentary that highlights the life of the artist. Sun Mu defected from the oppressive state in the late 1990s and since then has been creating art that depicts the story of his life in North Korea.  In order to protect his family, Sun Mu can’t use his real name.  Stanley explains:

The most extraordinary thing about him is that the audience for his art mostly doesn’t know what he looks like, or what his real name is. Sun Mu still has family in North Korea, so he never shows his face in public. His real identity is a closely guarded secret. He insists hiding in plain sight is not a form of thrill-seeking. He puts himself in real danger simply because he was “destined” to become Sun Mu (a phrase meaning “no boundaries”).

When Sun Mu first defected from North Korea he made his way to China where he was first exposed to a society other than the tyrannical state of his home country. Stanley explains his experience:

The most surprising thing he noticed when he arrived in China was the lights. “The glittering lights,” Sun Mu says. “Plastic bags blowing in the winds. Is this rotten capitalism? Is this the rotten capitalism the North has been talking about? Why are so many lights on?” He even began to wonder if he was hallucinating. There couldn’t be that many working lights glittering all over. For at least a decade after he defected, he continued to believe the lies perpetuated by Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il, propaganda that said capitalism made other countries worse.

Given that Sun Mu has experienced life in so many different cultures, it’s no surprise that his art draws inspiration from so many different influences other than North Korea. Back to Stanley:

Throughout the documentary, Sun Mu’s paintings come to life as transitions in the narrativeor as voiceovers occur. Several paintings get special attention as the artist explains his inspirations and where he was in his life journey when he created them. A friend of Sun Mu says, “if reunification were to happen, I think it would resemble Sun Mu’s paintings.” They have a clear mix of both North and South Korean style culture as well as Western influence. Sun Mu has been described as “South Korean by appearance, North Korean by heart.”

Sun Mu’s art is shown at the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing where museum curator, Liang Kegang, describes Sun Mu’s art saying  “He didn’t just paint the suffering and present only the wounds, he painted hope, a beautiful thing. This is very precious.”

Stanley finishes her article by giving a description of the emotional closing scene from the documentary.

The documentary gives voice to countless North Koreans who are now refugees or are still trapped in their hellish nation. It fittingly ends at Yeon Mi Jeong, a South Korean lookout over the border to North Korea. Sun Mu gazes back at his former home. He knows exactly what he’d do if he ever went back there: “I’d load my car with a pig, rice, and booze and I’d throw a big party in my hometown so we could all eat ‘til our stomachs burst, for once.” He hopes to one day exhibit in Pyongyang.

You can read Stanley’s full article at The Federalist here.

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Kyle Hanby

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