Treasures From North Korea’s Largest Art Studio

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Angkor Panorama Museum

The mention of North Korea is likely to conjure up images of the country’s volatile leader, as few people are aware of the country’s phenomenal artists and artwork that has quietly populated art houses throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Their most renowned international works include the Fairy Tale Fountain in Frankfurt, Germany and the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal. Now, the studio’s latest venture, the Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia is set to take the art world by storm.

Opened in December 2015, the Angkor Panorama Museum offers a glimpse into the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia through the eyes of North Korean artists. The highlight of the museum, a cyclorama depicting the history of seven centuries of the Khmer civilization, was constructed by more than sixty North Korean artists flown in to hand paint the highly detailed panoramic artwork. In addition, the site also features an artificial jungle complete with huts, sculptures and rocks that flawlessly blend with the cyclorama.

The Angkor Panorama Museum’s sole benefactor and partner is North Korea’s Mansudae Art Studio. Mansudae, based in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, is one of the world’s largest art centers and certainly the main art center in North Korea. The studio’s artists are responsible for the sculptures, artwork and other visual propaganda that the country is known for. Despite heavy government control, Mansudae has enjoyed close and frequent international partnerships with art centers all over the world. The studio’s decision to launch a venture in location in Cambodia is no surprise given the history of the two countries.

North Korean and Cambodian ties date back to the 1970s when Kim Il-Sun, grandfather of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s current leader, offered a palace near Pyongyang to exiled Cambodian King, Norodom Sihanouk. During his exile, King Sihanouk enjoyed a privileged life and made artistic contributions to North Korean society, even directing North Korean actors in a film production. King Sihanouk later referred to North Korea’s leader as more than a brother, and the country’s joint ventures have included restaurants among other businesses.

The installation of the Angkor Panorama Museum marks a significant change in approach for the Mansudae Studio. While most of the museum’s work has focused on for-profit commissioned sculptures and artwork for other countries, this is the first instance in which the museum has invested upfront in an international project. The investment is not financial alone. North Koreans also serve in many capacities throughout the museum as tour guides, servers in the restaurant and representatives in the museum gift shop.

Despite the prediction that the Angkor Panorama Museum is set to become the art world’s next biggest thing, for now the museum remains a hidden treasure. Those who do make it to the museum cannot showcase their trip as they must abide by the museum’s strict no-photography policy. On average, the museum logs twenty visitors a day, many times less than that. On a recent visit, a NY Times reporter found a museum staffer rushing to turn on the dimmed lights upon a guest’s arrival, explaining that they regularly keep lights off when there are no visitors to keep costs down.

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