A timely exhibition in Wigan explores propaganda and culture in North Korea via posters and photographs
As the world waits to see where the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang will lead, a new exhibition in Wigan is offering a glimpse into the public and political imagery of North Korea; a country that seems to be misunderstood as much as its leaders are ridiculed and reviled.
All the tropes of classic communist propaganda art are present in the poster collection of Dylan Harris, whose haul of ephemera and photographs from the closed country are going on display in this fascinating exhibition at Wigan’s multi-purpose arts venue, the Old Courts.
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Vibrant designs featuring heroic citizens — from workers, soldiers and tram conductors to mothers, fathers and schoolchildren — coalesce in these classic communist-era propaganda posters, whose archaic yet somehow timeless designs are alive and well in the regime of Kim Jong-un.
They have been collected over the last ten years by Harris, a photographer and traveller whose company, Lupine Travel, takes the adventurous to parts of the world which, in his own words, “have seldom been visited by tourists before.”
“Many of these places have long been closed off for various reasons, ranging from war to disease to nuclear accidents,” he says.
“The one overwhelming experience when visiting these places is the warmth and hospitality of the people, often totally at odds with the picture portrayed by the mainstream media.”
Given the fate of US college student Otto Warmbier, who in January 2016 helped himself to a propaganda poster (featuring the image of Kim Jung-un) from the wall a hotel in Pyongyang – an act which landed him in prison and led to his death in custody – the collecting of posters from North Korea might seem like a perilous hobby.
Yet Harris’s multiple visits there over the past decade have seen him collect a variety of objects from artwork, books, stamps and banknotes to music, photographs and even video works.
Describing North Korea as “almost completely sealed to outside influence and access for over 65 years” and “a mystery for most of the outside world”, Harris says “The only image in the West that we see of North Korea is that of a militaristic society and the regime.” This is something apparently borne out by his fascinating haul of propaganda posters. But he adds, “It’s also a country rich in its own culture and full of warm friendly faces”.
“The aim of the exhibition is to give a glimpse inside this society, to give a fuller picture of how it really is, including the human side of its people who are so often ignored by the West.”
North Korea: An Exploration, is at the Old Courts Wigan from September 1 – 30, 2017. Admission is free. See www.theoldcourts.com/gallery for more.