It was after he fled North Korea in 1990s that artist Sun Mu decided to turn the regime’s propaganda painting style on its head. After he settled in South Korea, his work became increasingly provocative, gaining attention for its ability to parody and imitate the North Korean regime’s social realist style.
Like many defectors who grew up inside the secretive state, Sun Mu’s early life was dominated by the former leaders of North Korea. Sun Mu studied at an art college outside Pyongyang and was enlisted to draw propaganda posters during his time in military service. [Once in South Korea] he slowly became accustomed to the greater political and artistic freedoms in Seoul, and began mixing North Korean painting styles with more overtly political imagery.
As a result the artist, now in his mid 40s, has stoked controversy and he has chosen to remain hidden from the public for fear of incriminating his family still in North Korea. Sun Mu is a nom de plume, a combination of two Korean words translating as “no borders”.
In one poignant work, Peace, six smiling children bear the flags of the countries taking part in the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme. “Children can get along with each other – adults don’t,” Sun Mu replies when asked why smiling children feature so prominently in his work.
A new documentary, I am Sun Mu, was screened in the UK in March, and follows the artist as he prepares for the opening of a controversial solo exhibition in Beijing called Red, White, Blue, in which visitors can step on giant portraits of former North Korean leaders in Santa Claus hats.