When one thinks of North Korean graphic art, images of strident anti-American propaganda posters spring to mind. Fortunately, and in the current climate of reduced tension on the peninsula, the posters that greeted you in the first room of Nick Bonner’s exhibition at the House of Illustration focused less on stirring up national hatred against the Americans and more on promoting the right spirit for maximising the quality and quantity of production to enhance the prosperity of the nation. The posters are not only about heavy industrial production. More traditional products such as silk, traditional medicine and seaweed harvesting are depicted.
“Let’s develop more mulberry plantations to produce more [silk] cocoons” exhorts one poster1; “Let’s all rear more goats… Produce more meat and milk!” suggests another. A third simply says “Let’s keep our streets, villages and homes clean and tidy!”. There is nothing here that orders us to exterminate the big-nosed American wolves. It’s almost refreshing to see subject matter so different from the expected anti-US propaganda, though the graphic style is nevertheless familiar.
In his introductory talk on the opening night of the exhibition, Nick Bonner touched on the artistic and design training undertaken by North Korea’s designers, which goes some way towards explaining the homogeneous visual and stylistic grammar the country’s graphic design. He also talked through some of the specific items on display in the exhibition and catalogued in his more comprehensive accompanying book.
The second and largest room in the exhibition (with the most eye-popping wallpaper) contained an interesting arrangement of everyday graphic design: simple and functional stationery products such as wrapping paper from department stores, writing paper and new year greetings cards; commercial packaging such as candy boxes and food labels (some with English words which are used to denote “premium quality”); …
…cigarette packets (interestingly, different brands of cigarettes are targeted at different segments of the population, with the aspirational “Rakwon” or “Paradise” brand featuring a view of the city of Pyongyang on its front). Postage stamps are an item that attract international interest, particularly when issued to satisfy the demand of individual interest groups: one stamp on display was issued to celebrate the birth of the UK’s Prince William in 1982. There was also an extensive collection of graphic novels, which have been in plenteous supply since Kim Jong Il’s 1991 exhortation that the nation should ‘develop the comic-strip genre’. Paul Gravett, an expert on Asian Manga, would later give talk, linked to this exhibition, on the subject of graphics novels from both North and South Korea.
Just about the only items in this second room that did not involve designs printed on paper or cardboard was a small collection of lapel pins. Interesting for their absence are any examples of the Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung lapel badges that are meant to be widely worn in the DPRK.
In the final room were possibly the most interesting exhibits: programmes from performances of the five revolutionary operas (Sea of Blood, The Flower Girl, Tell O Forest, True Daughter of the Party and Song of Mt Kumgang.) I’m sure somewhere on the internet there is an English language summary of the plots of these operas, but this section of the exhibition could have done with more space and more explanation.
The final items in the room, and needing no explanation, were also the most colourful – lenticular postcards depicting landscapes, flowers, ginseng, chollima horses, traditional instruments and even a panda in a zoo.
As you left the exhibition, there was the opportunity to view the Enter Pyongyang timelapse video by JT Singh and Rob Whitworth, which serves in part as promotional material for Nick Bonner’s Koryo Tours, which makes so many interesting things happen.
A more comprehensive collection of images from Nick Bonner’s collection can be found in the Phaidon book Made in North Korea – Graphics from Everyday life in the DPRK, which is beautifully presented and a compelling coffee table book for dipping into every now and then. Both book and exhibition work as a diverse, interesting and accessible window into visual culture in the DPRK. And the brief commentary provided alongside the objects is informative and interesting.
Bonner wraps up the introduction to his book thus:
This collection is personal and subjective rather than comprehensive; it is not intended as a thorough survey of North Korean graphic ephemera, but is a true reflection of the breadth and style of graphic output I encountered over these years. You may join me in finding this a fascinating and evocative selection of examples of a kind of under-recognised craftsmanship, you may see it as a tabula rasa from which to launch ideas and opinions of wider North Korean society and politics, or you may view it as a book of pictures of beer labels, ticket stubs and sweet wrappers.
As Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia, cheekily commented: “Nobody has ever turned the accumulated rubbish under their bed into a better book.” And the same could be said of the exhibition.
Images kindly provided by Phaidon / The House of Illustration. Installation photos by Paul Grover. Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK was at the House of Illustration 23 February – 13 May 2018
- Book reviews in Design Week | Guardian | Independent | Creative Review
- Exhibition reviews in FT | Guardian
- Nick Bonner interview in British Journal of Photography
- Buy Made in North Korea at Amazon.co.uk
- Translations of all the poster slogans, as well as the comic book titles in the second room, are helpfully provided in an accompanying leaflet.