Béhanzin (1844 – December 10, 1906) is the eleventh King of Dahomey, modern-day Benin. He fought against the French colonizers and is remembered as a great hero by the people of Benin. This impressive monument is erected in Abomey, the country’s capital.
And this is a no less monumental statue of former vice-president and independence fighter Joshua Nkomo, revered by the people of Zimbabwe. The statue was commissioned by the government of the country.
At 160 feet tall, the bronze monument is over one-and-a-half times the height of the Statue of Liberty. It depicts a man with a bare, ripped torso holding an infant aloft in one arm and guiding a woman with the other. The infant points ahead to indicate the glorious future, while the woman extends her arm behind to acknowledge the troubled past. Her hair is swept back by the wind, as are her scant, gossamer-like garments.
The Heroes’ Acre monument is situated south of Windhoek, Namibia. It is built as a symmetric polygon with a marble obelisk and a bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier with a Kalashnikov in his hand, having uncanny resemblance to Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s President from 1990 to 2005.
What these monuments, made of tons of bronze, strewn over African continent — Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Benin, Cambodia, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, Syria, Togo, Zimbabwe — have in common?
It is their maker. These mammoth monuments were erected by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a design and construction company from North Korea — the international commercial division of the Mansudae Art Studio. Perhaps the world’s biggest art factory, Mansudae employs roughly 4,000 North Koreans, including some 1,000 artists, handpicked from the country’s best academies.
“They seem to have developed a small cottage industry,” says Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea and director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The North Koreans are desperate for money, and my guess is that at some point they figured out that essentially exporting their capacity to make glorious monuments to great leaders was something they could do to both win friends and possibly influence people, but also possibly make money.”
Germany is thus far the only Western democracy to have engaged the services of Mansudae. It did so in 2005, commissioning the fountain re-creation for €200,000 total ($264,480 today).
“The top tier artists in Germany simply don’t make realist work anymore. North Koreans on the other hand haven’t experienced the long evolution of modern art; they are kind of stuck in the early 1900s, which is exactly when this fountain was made.” (–Klaus Klemp, deputy director of Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Art.)
And it went perfectly well, with the exception of a slight style issue: the North Korean sculpted the woman with “kind of a cement block hairdo,” in Klemp’s words — a little too Communist/socialist/realist for 21st-century Germany.
How does someone become a Mansudae artist? What training is involved?
Most of the Mansudae artists are graduates from Pyongyang University of Fine Art. There’s no examination or that sort of thing but top-scored graduates usually want to become Mansudae artists. Once you become Mansudae artist, you can learn from famous artists and continue your training.
In secondary school, the ones who have potential go to the after-school activities. At the time of graduation you take an examination to enter university … this is an ordinary course of training but it’s not all that is needed to reach the high level of expertise. (Jon Pyong-jin, oil painter awarded the title ‘merited artist.)
Most Mansudae paintings, drawings, prints, and statues are of a uniform style and depict a pastel world filled with paternalistic leaders, rosy-cheeked children, loving mothers, vibrant nature scenes, and patriotic heroes. But the classically trained artists are good enough to create all manner of realist art.