North Korean Murals, from Namibia to Syria

Espionart previously explored a string of patriotic sculptures built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international division of the North Korean state-run Mansudae Art Studio. This propaganda-for-hire is part of an alliance between North Korea and several African nations that dates from the 1960s, when the secretive Asian regime provided material assistance in their struggles for independence against European colonial powers. Mansudae’s projects have proved controversial, as shown by the riots that accompanied the inauguration in 2010 of the African Renaissance Monument, in Dakar, Senegal. Locals were infuriated by the extravagance of the statue – the tallest in Africa – as well as the sensual design and the Senegalese government’s gift to North Korea of a large portion of state land.

Heroes’ Acre sculpture, Windhoek, Namibia

Another controversial sculpture was erected in 2002 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, as part of a commission for Mansudae Overseas Projects to construct the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial. The design of the monument and the outsourcing of a multi-million dollar project to North Korea once again enraged locals. Despite that, Mansudae has received further commissions from the Namibian government – including one of the latest of a number of international war memorials and museums built by North Korean artists.

The Namibian War of Independence – also known as the South African Border War – broke out in August 1966. With support from the Soviet Union, China and several sympathetic African nations, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia fought for independence from South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) finally became a republic in 1990, and on its 24th anniversary, in 2014, the Independence Memorial Museum was opened in Windhoek.

Section of panoramic mural, Independence Memorial Museum, Windhoek, Namibia

At the centre of Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum is a life-size panoramic mural, a visual strategy that tends to dominate Mansudae’s memorial designs. Rather than showing any evidence of a local artistic tradition, the mural is painted as an updated form of Socialist Realism, the artistic style developed in the USSR in the 1930s and that flourished in communist countries throughout the twentieth century. Despite the museum’s focus on independence, the ongoing appeal of Socialist Realism as a form of political propaganda is shown by the Namibian government’s decision to send state money to artists in another country, to produce work in a generic, Westernised style, rather than to give much-needed opportunities to local artists.

Similar designs have been seen more recently in the Angkor Panorama Museum, opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. Entirely produced by Mansudae Overseas Projects, down to its staffing by North Korean nationals, the museum again contains at its centre a 360-degree mural, which purportedly took 63 artists in Pyongyang almost 2 years to complete. Thus, despite their unsubtle and anachronistic style, North Korea’s memorial murals and museum developments continue to prove lucrative – while demonstrating how Socialist Realist art remains alive and well, and much-loved as a form of propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

Section of panoramic mural, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

Mansudae’s museum projects date to the late 1980s, when North Korean architects were sent to Cairo to develop the 6th of October War Panorama, commemorating the Egyptian and Syrian alliance against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. North Korea had also contributed militarily to the conflict, sending pilots and fighters jets to engage the Israeli Air Force.

Painting of Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il Sung, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

The Assad regime subsequently commissioned Mansudae Overseas Projects in the late 1990s, to build a second museum presenting an alternative version of the conflict to the usual narrative of an Israeli victory.  The October War Panorama in Damascus features a number of grandiose Socialist Realist paintings depicting the history of Syria, soldiers engaged in battle, and the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, glorified in the classic style of a dictator, flanked by jubilant citizens. The Syrian museum also displays a large painting of Hafez al-Assad alongside North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung – further evidence of the close relationship between the two regimes.

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The Art Enigma of Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford’s astonishing lucky streak reached a dramatic climax on 9 August 1974, when he became, by default, President of the United States of America. This had been a rapid ascent for Ford, who only 8 months previously had been the Republican Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. Just as the Watergate scandal was reaching a crescendo, with widespread calls for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced from office because of his own legal troubles. Convicted of tax evasion during his time as Governor of Maryland, Agnew remains only the second VP in US history to resign. Ford was picked as his replacement, while charges against the President were at a critical point. The following summer, in another historic moment, Nixon became the only US President in history to resign. Thus in quick succession, Ford held the vice presidency and presidency without being elected for either post – an unprecedented feat.

Leading the United States in the middle of the Cold War, Ford presided over instability at home and abroad, including severe economic hardship, a brief détente with Communist Europe, and the Fall of Saigon. While respected in some quarters, Ford is condemned by others for his support for foreign misadventures in Vietnam and Indonesia that caused the deaths of thousands. When he finally faced a presidential election, in 1976, Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter. Ford’s 895-day presidency went into the record books as the shortest in American history for someone who did not die in office. But perhaps this shorter term had some benefit: until 2017, Ford held yet another record, as the longest-lived US president.

 It seems fitting that the multi record-breaking 38th US President became the subject of an art enigma, exactly 38 years after he took office. In April 2012, residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan – the city in which Ford was raised and is now buried – spotted a number of spray-painted stencil images of the former president on the side of the Gerald R. Ford Freeway. Their appearance quickly sparked a lively local debate about whether the paintings were art or vandalism. The Michigan Department of Transportation thought the latter, designating them vandalism and a dangerous distraction for drivers, and vowing to have them removed.

The discussion then led on to debate about Ford’s record in office, his legacy, and the value of political art. The artist had clearly researched the subject in detail, basing the stencils on carefully selecting photographic images of Ford from key moments in his presidency and occasionally including quotes from landmark speeches. The first of the Ford stencils featured the words “I am indebted to no man”, spoken by the new president immediately after he took the oath of office, to humbly acknowledge that he had not been chosen by the American people.

The debate escalated from words to action, as some commentators staged interventions to alter the images: with the words “war criminal” sprayed in red paint; with Ford’s face covered by the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask; and with a speech bubble containing the Grand Rapids motto “Motu Viget” (Latin for “strength in activity”).

 By May 2012, the first four paintings had been removed by a state cleaning crew. But the rogue artist soon returned, depicting Ford speaking at a podium, skiing and standing in a bathing suit and towel – the latter image appropriately appearing beside the Grand River and on the opposite bank from the graves of Ford and his wife, Betty.

Still the identity of the artist remained a mystery. Some hoped that the tag “SKBFF” next to some of the works would be a clue. In August 2012, MLive media group received an anonymous email, in which someone calling themselves Odd Job claimed to be the artist. This claimant dismissed SKBFF as an acronym for the “Society to Keep Betty Ford Forever”. In a subsequent email interview, in which Odd Job mostly wrote in riddles, they nonetheless provided some interesting context, claiming that “the images are about the community’s interaction with the memory of Gerald Ford”. The emailer also made some pertinent comments on the art vs. vandalism debate, welcoming the defacement because “really public art belongs to everyone. … I am pleased that someone interacted with it. … It is just part of the conversation. Art is brief; life is long.”

 However, the legitimacy of these claims were called into question when another emailer, signing themselves SKBFF, called Odd Job a fraud and seemingly proved the ownership of the paintings by sending images of the stencils used to create them.

The last of the Ford street paintings appeared in Grand Rapids that September, on the side of the building that was hosting the city’s annual ArtPrize. The image showed Gerald and Betty Ford celebrating his acceptance of the Republican party presidential nomination in 1976. The depiction of Ford’s short-lived success brought a similar reward for the creator, with the painting accepted as an entrant to the competition. On the ArtPrize website, the self-defined Unknown Graffiti Artist titled the work Vandalism and noted: “Recreating iconic images of Gerald Ford in Grand Rapids with stencils and spray paint raises some questions: Does painting popular images legitimize graffiti as an acceptable form of communication within community standards? Is this style of graffiti art or mere decoration?”

This artist’s statement was the last that was heard of the project. Publicly, the creator of the images and the intention behind them is still a mystery. Whether made by a single person or a collective; and whether an elaborate hoax, a guerrilla marketing stunt to mark Ford’s anniversary, or a multi-part conceptual artwork aimed at exploring the fine line between street art, graffiti and vandalism; nonetheless, it shone a light on the ongoing controversy about America’s Cold War record, the rights to commemoration, and the strange tale of perhaps the luckiest president in US history.

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Commemorating Bomber Command

In an unprepossessing corner of London’s Green Park – an oasis of tranquillity squeezed between the busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly and the grandeur of Buckingham Palace – stands an imposing neo-classical stone structure. This is the Bomber Command Memorial, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The memorial took so long to be realised in large part due to the ongoing controversy about the magnitude of Britain’s bombing raids on German cities in the final years of the war, which inflicted widespread devastation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. However, the aircrews also paid a high price: at the centre of the shrine is a large bronze group sculpture, depicting seven of the 55,573 servicepeople who lost their lives fighting in the RAF’s bomber forces in World War II – a staggering death rate of 44% of the entire force. The 9 foot high figures were created by Royal Sculptor, Philip Jackson. The work captures the exhaustion, relief, concern and fortitude of an air crew as they depart a plane, knowing they have once again survived a perilous mission but that their brothers-in-arms may never return.

The memorial has proved popular with Londoners and tourists alike, while making headlines for its endorsement by celebrities including Dame Judi Dench and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb.

Sculpture by Philip Jackson, within the Bomber Command Memorial, London. Courtesy Royal Parks.

Although the memorial focuses on World War II, Bomber Command didn’t disappear with the Allied victory in 1945, instead being thrust back to the front line in the atomic age. While the United States enjoyed an era of wealth and rampant consumerism in the aftermath of the war, European nations were slow to recover from the damage and loss. Thus, while America rapidly built up its nuclear arsenal and the USSR raced to compete, US allies in Western Europe struggled to develop weapons that might resist the Soviet threat.

Bomber Command Memorial by Philip Jackson.

In 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appealed to US President Eisenhower to loan ballistic missiles to the UK, just as the perceived technological superiority of the Soviet Union sparked the Sputnik Crisis. The Americans agreed, and in 1959 they launched Project Emily, with the deployment of sixty Thor missiles to the UK. While US air force personnel were sent to oversee the weapons, responsibility for both men and machines fell under the control of Bomber Command. With its nuclear armory outsourced to the US, the UK was compelled to support its ally in a number of military forays at this time, and Bomber Command contributed to Cold War escapades in the Middle East and East Asia, and stood ready to serve during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, the downing of the U-2 spy plane over Soviet air space in 1960 was a wake-up call to the West. Acknowledging that military technology had dramatically changed in the Cold War, the British came to the realisation that their bomber air fleet would be no match for the Soviets in the new theatres of war. When the moment came to renew Project Emily in 1963, the British government instead opted to return the missiles to the United States, abandoning the idea of nuclear-armed aircraft in favour of submarines. With the dubious honour of safeguarding the country’s nuclear deterrent passed to the Royal Navy, Bomber Command ceased to have a role to play in the Cold War, and the unit was absorbed into the wider RAF in 1968.

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Nicaragua’s Revolutionary Murals

The present day turmoil in Central America, that leads so many to risk death or incarceration while attempting to cross the US border, has its origins in the Cold War. The civil wars and revolutions that reached their peak during the 1970s are collectively known as the Central American Crisis. This unrest in turn had its origins in the so-called Banana Wars of the early twentieth century, when the United States sent armed forces to occupy countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to maintain control over plantations and to dominate regional trade.

Espionart earlier looked at Glorious Victory, a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera that expressed his outrage at a CIA-led coup in Guatemala that deposed the democratically-elected president, in support of the interests of the nefarious American United Fruit Company. The great Mexican mural movement, of which Rivera was leader, later inspired Nicaraguan artists to work together on creating numerous public paintings that responded to the long years of conflict in that country.

The Nicaraguan Revolution began as a series of uprisings against the ruthless dictatorship of the US-backed Somoza family, which ruled for over 42 years until it was swept from power on 17 July 1979 by the Sandinista rebels. In turn, the socialist Sandinistas were challenged by the Contras, right-wing militias trained and funded by the United States. Over the next two decades, both sides systematically terrorised and murdered civilians, with indigenous communities in particular decimated as they were – and continue to be – scapegoated as outsiders in their own countries.

Mural by the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama, 1980. Photo: David Schwartz.

After the Sandinista victory in 1979, murals began to spring up across Nicaragua. The first pro-Sandinista murals were in fact painted in Panama, a southern neighbour that provided both support and refuge to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) during its years of insurrection. Brothers Virgilio and Ignacio Ortega formed the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama in the 1970s, painting starkly confrontational social realist murals near army bases and police stations. Soon after the coup, members of the brigade relocated to Nicaragua at the invitation of the FSLN, as the new government recognised the potential for consolidating its power through painting.

As the movement gained pace, international mural artists travelled to Nicaragua, resulting in the creation of over 300 murals during the decade that followed the Sandinista takeover. While the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama tended to depict Sandinista revolutionaries, the mural movement grew to include romantic or domestic scenes of an idealised post-revolutionary future, celebrating Nicaragua’s cultural heritage and supporting the FSLN drive towards mass literacy, universal health care, and gender equality.

Alejandro Canales, ‘Homage to Women’, 1980, Managua. Photo: David Schwartz.

While in power, the Sandinistas passed laws to protect the murals. But after they were voted out of office in 1990, the new pro-US right-wing government oversaw the destruction of many of the paintings, despite the efforts of local communities to preserve and restore them. Others took it upon themselves to document the murals, providing a lasting record for these lost artworks. During the 1980s, Albright College professor, David Schwartz, took full-colour images of many of the murals, some of which have been made available online. At the height of the destruction, UCLA art history professor David Kunzle also travelled to Nicaragua and succeeded in recording about 80 percentage of the original works. His book, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, 1979–1992, was published in 1995 and is partly available to view at Google Books.

But the Sandinista murals would prove to be as resilient as the political movement they celebrated. In the 2006 Nicaraguan general election, the FSLN and its leader, Daniel Ortega, once again claimed the presidency, heralding the start of a new mural movement across the country.

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Estampa Popular and Spain’s Anti-Francoist Art

The Spanish Civil War, which for almost three years from 17 July 1936 tore the European nation apart, resulted in 1939 in the establishment of a military dictatorship under the formidable General Francisco Franco. During World War II, the Spanish autocrat provided strategic support to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, repaying the countries’ backing of his Nationalist rebels during the Civil War. But in the advent of the Cold War, Franco found himself courted by the West, as the devoutly anti-communist state proved an uncomfortable though useful ally in efforts to resist Soviet influence in Southern Europe.

Espionart has previously explored how the United States used the visual arts as a means of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Spain in the 1950s. The Franco regime meanwhile hoped to obscure memory of its wartime alliance with the Axis powers by encouraging its artists to embrace a modern Western style. This favourable atmosphere led to a surge in abstract art groups in Spain, from the surrealist Dau al Set in Barcelona and the non-objective painting of El Paso artists in Madrid, to the constructivism of Parpalló in Valencia and Basque artists aligned to Gaur.

Selection of Estampa Popular prints, 1959–66, on display in Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2016.

Although many of the artists associated with these groups were anti-Francoist, at the same time a counter movement arose among artists who felt that, if the regime favoured abstraction, then resistance required them to reject the avant-garde. While the state adopted popular American artistic narratives of art for art’s sake, projecting art as free, individualist and apolitical, artists explicitly against Franco emphasised art as collective and socially-engaged.

The Estampa Popular (‘Popular Press’) group was founded in Madrid in 1959 by José García Ortega (1921–1990), a social realist painter and engraver who was also a prominent member of the outlawed Spanish Communist Party (PCE). Ortega’s politics resulted in him being jailed in the late 1940s and then exiled between 1960 and 1977, during which time he lived in Italy and France, and befriended Picasso. In the founding manifesto of Estampa Popular in 1959, Ortega stated “that an art at the service of the people must reflect the social and political reality of its time and requires above all the union of content and realist forms”.

Ricardo Zamorano, ‘Jornaleros, España, loma a loma’ (‘Day labourers, Spain, hill to hill’), n.d.

Rapidly gaining support, Estampa Popular grew into a complex artistic network that extended to cities across Spain. The movement brought together a broad range of artists who shared a wish to use their art to bring down Franco’s dictatorship, which would continue until his death in 1975. Printmaking was its primary artistic medium, in line with other anti-elitist art movements around the world, and drawing in particular on the graphic art that thrived in revolutionary Mexico.

Estampa Popular workshops were established in numerous Spanish cities, providing artists with access to cheap printing techniques that made art affordable to all, while increasing the speed and ease with which they could produce protest posters. While working in a variety of styles, Estampa Popular artists tended to favour bold, figurative designs that were accessible and clearly comprehensible. In content, the prints bore witness to the dark side of Francoism and exposed false narratives of the regime, highlighting brutal political repression and the economic hardship imposed on rural communities and industrial labourers by the relentless drive towards modernisation.

Francisco Álvarez, ‘Manifestación’ (‘Demonstration’), c.1962. Courtesy Museo Reina Sofía.

Estampa Popular started to dwindle in the late 1960s, gradually replaced by groups such as Equipo Crónica and Equipo Realidad, which blended anti-Francoist sentiment with styles inspired by the global pop art movement. But it would prove to have far-reaching influence on art in Cold War Spain, empowering artists to seek alternatives to compliance with the regime’s vision of modern art.

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In the Silent Zone: An American Nuke in Mexico

As the Soviets dramatically stepped up their nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s, the US government showed a willingness to take calculated risks with its atomic arsenal in order to maintain arms race superiority over its Cold War adversary. With some of America’s nuclear test sites situated close to the northern and southern borders, concerns were raised in classified documents that missiles could drift into neighbouring countries or even as far as Western Europe, risking an international incident. However, the authorities decided to proceed with the tests, confident that in that scenario, the American public would support them if persuaded the programme was in the interests of national security.

When a Pershing missile crashed just south of the Mexican border on September 1967, the misfire was downplayed and soon forgotten. Then on 11 July 1970, a far more serious overflight occurred. Early that morning, the US Air Force launched a rocket from Green River Launch Complex in Utah, aiming for the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The weapon was what is known as a ‘salted bomb’, armed with a radioactive isotope that was designed to maximise the fallout of hazardous material. The rocket travelled hundreds of miles further than anticipated, eventually landing in the sparsely-populated Mapimi desert in Mexico. Although there are no known victims, the overflight resulted in a long and costly cleanup of contaminated soil, which is chronicled in detail on the Utah government website.


In a recently declassified memorandum, then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed gratitude for the patience of the Mexican government, noting a willingness “to grant clearances and assist in any search efforts”. Perhaps Mexico realised it was nothing personal, considering that by 1970 the United States had almost nuked itself on at least 11 occasions. The few inhabitants of the Mapimi region proved to be equally stoical, taking advantage of a road that was rapidly built into the desert to allow the US Air Force to deal with the fallout. Locals rechristened the decontaminated site the Mapimi Silent Zone, borrowing urban myths from the Bermuda Triangle to reimagine it as a tourist destination. The area still attracts visitors today with tales of strange magnetic forces and extraterrestrial activity.

One recent visitor was American artist Freya Powell. In March 2016, she travelled to the Mapimi Silent Zone to explore its strange history, responding to the theme of ‘silence’ to investigate the concealment of the clean-up operation and subsequent myth-making. The project was commissioned by the New York nonprofit Art in General, and her single-channel video, The Silence of the Unsaid, premiered there in 2017. The work intersperses panoramic views of the site, filmed using drone technology, with excerpts from interviews with locals. Through this juxtaposition, Powell deconstructs the language used to describe the area, teasing out the complex relationship between silence, history and accountability. You can watch an excerpt from the video on Powell’s website.

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Images: Freya Powell, The Silence of the Unsaid, 2017 (still and installation view). Courtesy the artist & Art in General. Photo: Charles Benton.

Weaving War in Afghanistan

The political instability that has blighted Afghanistan in recent decades was sparked in July 1973, when a coup d’état swept from power Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin who staged the plot, established himself as the first President of Afghanistan – ruling over the new republic until he, in turn, was overthrown during the Saur Revolution of April 1978.

During his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah had managed to maintain neutrality in a war-torn world, establishing friendly relations with East and West during the first three decades of the Cold War. But as competing political factions tore the country apart, Afghanistan’s strategic location between Soviet and US spheres of influence made the country increasingly vulnerable. Following the establishment of a pro-Soviet government in the late 1970s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began to covertly train and arm Afghanistan’s Islamist rebels. Today, the world is all too aware of the catastrophic results of that fateful decision. Fearing the collapse of the pro-Soviet government, under attack from the mujahideen insurgents, the USSR invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, starting a brutal 10-year Cold War proxy war.

The ongoing turmoil has decimated many aspects of Afghan culture, including its once thriving handmade carpet industry. Prior to the Soviet invasion, this centuries-old artistic tradition supported a fifth of the population. With their livelihoods under threat, Afghanistan’s weavers began to incorporate strange symbols into their intricate geometric designs. In place of flowers and birds, there appeared guns and grenades, missiles, tanks, battleships and helicopters. Likened to the Bayeux Tapestry and as a form of modern history painting, these intriguing and disquieting objects have become known as ‘war rugs’.

The inspiration behind the war rugs and their exact origins remain a mystery. Some have linked this phenomenon to a series of map textiles on the theme of the Six-Day War, commissioned from Afghan weavers in 1971 by the Italian conceptual artist, Alighieri Boetti. The creation of war rugs from the early 1980s has alternatively been defended as a cathartic response, expressing anger and defiance at the Soviet invasion; while some have viewed the carpets from the outset as tourist items, cynically produced to sell to the invaders. Indeed, priced between several hundred to thousands of US dollars, depending on quality and complexity, the war rugs are typically too expensive for the domestic market. As a result, the designs of the rugs have become increasingly commercial over the decades, developing from ‘hidden’ references to the apparatus of war, to explicit military images alongside English-language text.

The designs have also changed in response to the shifting history of conflict in Afghanistan. As Cold War moved to War on Terror, depictions of Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifles gave way to images of American drones and F-16 fighter jets. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, carpet designers appeared to lift imagery from propaganda leaflets airdropped over the country by the Americans. Scenes of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, offered as justification for the invasion, have often been weaved in refugee camps and sold back to Westerners. Indeed, this subject matter has proved particularly popular with overseas buyers and foreign aid workers.

Made from knotted wool and vegetable dye, the war rugs typically take between six and nine months to produce. Most are made by rural or displaced women, who risk damaged eyesight and back pain for little compensation. Yet for carpet dealers, the war rugs have becoming a small but vital part of an industry that still faces huge challenges.