The African Renaissance Monument, Built by North Korea

While visiting the Things Fall Apart exhibition (part of the recent “Red Africa” season) at Calvert 22 in London, I was intrigued by Onejoon Che’s model of the African Renaissance Monument. This was one of a series of models and photographs of African monuments on display by the South Korean artist. Firstly, I was struck by how closely the design for the monument mirrored Soviet statuary and monumental sculptures erected under other Communist regimes. Several examples have previously been featured on ESPIONART, such as the golden statue in Vieng Xay District, Laos and Choi Young-jeep’s Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. What led this statue to be built in Dakar, Senegal as recently as 2010? And then there was the small matter of the North Koreans. While the sculpture has been credited as being based on an idea of President Abdoulaye Wade and designed alternatively by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby or  Romanian sculptor Virgil Magherusan, the object itself was built by a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Projects. I decided to investigate further.

Standing 49 metres tall and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from a scenic hilltop, the African Renaissance Monument looks as though it has been in place for many years. The tallest statue in Africa, this imposing bronze effigy is of a scale and spirit that is rarely seen in 21st-century statuary (although China recently bucked the trend with a 32-metre high bust of a young Chairman Mao that was unveiled in 2009). But in fact the African Renaissance Monument is a very recent addition to the Senegalese landscape, with construction only beginning in 2008 and the formal dedication taking place on 4 April 2010, to commemorate 50 years of independence from France.

The statue consists of three full-length figures in deep bronze, that appear to depict an idealised African family group. On the left, a scantily-clad young woman leans against a rock, her head tilted back and her arms spread behind her in a submissive pose; in the middle, a muscular young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and a traditional kufi cap straddles the rock, his right arm around the girl’s waist, and a small child held aloft in his left hand; on the left, the naked child sits perched on the man’s shoulder and points westward towards the sea, with the direction of his arm completing the upward trajectory of the entire scene. All three figures stare upwards with determination, a common trope in Socialist Realism.
The statue was unveiled in front of 19 African heads of state, in recognition of its status as a symbol of the African Renaissance, a campaign for postcolonial African nations to work together to achieve success. President Wade announced that after “several centuries of imprisonment in the abyssal depths of ignorance, intolerance and racism,” the statue “brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”. Yet despite this utopian proclamation, riot police had to be deployed to control a protest by thousands of Senegalese citizens who denounced the use of US$27 million of public money to build the “horrible” statue. In a 92% Muslim country, the colossal display of naked flesh also provoked uproar. Some Senegalese opposition leaders even labelled the sculpture “Stalinist”, acknowledging its similarities to works such as Vera Mukhina’s iconic statue of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, first displayed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937 and now once again erected in Moscow.

Also in attendance at the opening ceremony were representatives of North Korea. Mansudae Overseas Projects is the international division of Mansudae Art Studio, run by the North Korean government and responsible for numerous propaganda monuments across the secretive nation. In recent years, the Pyongyang-based company has produced a number of monuments across Africa celebrating independence from European colonial powers. Other works, also reproduced as models by Onejoon Che, include the bronze Three Dikgosi Monument that was unveiled in Gaborone, Botswana in 2005, and Heroes’ Acre, a war memorial erected in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Other projects include a statue memorialising the 19th-century King Béhanzin, on display in Abomey, Benin. The involvement of North Korea in the construction of the African Renaissance Monument was previously explored in Frieze Magazine, while other statues built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects can be seen in an article on Quartz.

It has been reported that as a reward for its involvement, North Korea was granted a large portion of state land in Senegal, meaning that a statue purported to celebrate freedom from colonisation has ironically resulted in yet another non-African nation securing land rights in Africa.

Images: Onejoon Che, Model of the African Renaissance Monument, 2014. Fibre-reinforced plastic. Courtesy the artist; African Renaissance Monument, 2010. Bronze, 49 metres. Dakar, Senegal; Vera Mukhina, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 1937. Stainless steel, 24.5 metres. Moscow, Russia.

What & Where: The Guard Who Jumped the Berlin Wall

What: Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer (Walljumper), 2009
Where: Brunnenstraße, Berlin, Germany

In June 2009, a few months prior to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new sculpture appeared on the streets of the German capital. Mauerspringer (Walljumper) by Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders depicts a life-sized East German border guard named Conrad Schumann, in the midst of his daring escape to West Berlin on 15 August 1961.

Schumann was just 19 years old when he became the first GDR soldier to officially defect to the West. His escape came on the third day of construction of the wall he had been sent to guard, at this point little more than a low barbed-wire fence. As his colleagues were distracted trying to keep back a throng of bystanders, Schumann made his break for freedom.

Captured on camera by West German photographer Peter Leibing, the image of Schumann with head bowed and arms spread mid-air above the barbed wire was dubbed the “Leap of Freedom.” It was published around the world and rapidly became an iconic symbol of the Cold War. Even now the poster depicting Schumann’s jump remains one of the best-selling items at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Conrad Schumann’s spur-of-the-moment decision to leave East Germany showed remarkable foresight. Following the construction of the Berlin Wall a “death strip” patrolled by armed guards divided the city. Between 1961 and 1989 only 5,000 Berliners successfully crossed from East to West, with over half of them soldiers and policemen.

Watch a short film by Bianca Döring including footage of Schumann’s desertion:

Images: Top – Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer, 2009; Bottom – Peter Leibing, Leap of Freedom, 1961.

What & Where: Sculpture of Bangladesh’s Martyred Intellectuals

What: Sculpture of the Martyred Intellectuals
Where: Mujibnagar Memorial Complex, Meherpur, Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Liberation War between East Pakistan and West Pakistan ended on 16 December 1971 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in the east. Although only lasting 9 months, the war was shocking in its brutality. During a series of genocidal atrocities perpetuated by the Pakistan Army against the Bengali population, artists were targeted in a campaign to liquidate intellectuals, a strategy aimed at destroying the community’s cultural identity.

Two days prior to the surrender of the West Pakistanti forces, on the night of 14 December, over 200 leading intellectuals were arrested and executed. Alongside artists the victims included professors, doctors, engineers, journalists, poets and writers. The event is now commemorated in Bangladesh as Martyred Intellectuals Day.

A group statue commemorating this event is one of a number of poignant works at the Mujibnagar Memorial Complex in the Meherpur District of Bangladesh. The memorial was built on the site of a mango grove where the country’s first independent government was sworn in.

You can see more photos of the Liberation War memorial and its sculptures at Flickr Hive Mind.

Images: Sculpture at Mujibnagar Memorial Complex depicting the massacre of intellectuals. Courtesy Abdul Malek Babul.

Sculpture at Korea’s Secret Tunnel

Following a tip-off from a North Korean defector, on 17 October 1978 South Korea discovered the existence of what is now known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. It is the closest to Seoul of four such tunnels, secret passageways linking the two territories that were chiselled out of bedrock to prepare for a surprise invasion from the north. There are believed to be up to 20 more still to be found.

It is estimated that the narrow 1.7km-long tunnel would enable over 30,000 North Korean soldiers per hour to make the journey south. Nowadays, there are preventative concrete barricades in place and the tunnel has instead become a popular tourist spot complete with gift shop.

At the mouth of the tunnel stands a statue with the title This One Earth (하나 되는 지구). It is one of a number of pro-unification artworks and sculptures found on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily-guarded no man’s land that divides the countries. As with the Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea, the split earth indicates the sadness of a country torn in two. Here men, women and children on either side of the divide attempt to push the earth back together, in a symbol of peace and forgiveness.

Image: This One Earth, DMZ, South Korea.

Youth Mao Zedong Statue

On 1 October 1949 Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Over the next half a century the country witnessed the trauma of the Great Leap Forward and social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and gradually progressed to become a superpower.

Although now a technologically-advantaged nation with a booming economy, the visual culture of Mao’s China continues to loom large in the Cold War era statuary and paintings that populate the country. Yet despite these residual artworks, in December 2009 many were surprised by the unveiling of the Youth Mao Zedong Statue on Orange Isle outside the city Changsha.

Standing 32 metres tall and constructed from 8,000 giant granite bricks, the monumental bust depicts Mao in 1925, when at age 32 he composed a poem about Changsha. The flattering portrait shows Mao with a long mane of windswept hair and in a heroic pose typical of socialist realism, looking with confident determination towards the country’s communist future.

The sculpture took 2 years to construct and cost about 35 million US dollars, funded by the local government. Professor Xie Liwen, a member of the creative team from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, recalled his ambition to create a work recognised for its uniqueness and artistry. Favourable comments have compared the statue to the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt, although others have questioned the suitability of its construction in the modern China.

Youth Mao Zedong Statue, Orange Isle, Changsha, Hunan, China, 2007–09.

Golden Statue for Laos’ Secret War

After years of French colonial rule, Laos was finally granted autonomy on 19 July 1949 before achieving independence in 1953. Yet its celebrations would be short-lived. Barely a fortnight afterwards a bitter civil war broke out which would divide the country for over two decades.

As the conflict rapidly became a high-stakes Cold War proxy war, the revolutionary communist group, Pathet Lao, and the Royal Lao Government both received extensive support from the rival superpowers. Yet as the Vietnam War become increasingly unpopular in the United States, the CIA’s activities in Laos became known as the ‘Secret War’.

After Communism emerged victorious in 1975, a memorial was erected in the city of Vieng Xai, a Pathet Lao stronghold during the war. The patriotic group statue blends various sculptural traditions and iconographies to riveting effect.

Vieng Xai Statue

Its bright gold finish mirrors much of the Buddhist statuary of Indochina, yet the message of peace is here subverted. The group contains the traditional Communist pairing of a female peasant and male worker, complete with the obligatory hammer and sickle. Yet here they are joined by a third figure of a soldier. While the peasant woman holds the popular Socialist Realist symbol of sheaves of corn, a shotgun is strapped to her back. The central figure brandishes a machine gun, while the grenades on the soldier’s belt increase the sense of menace.
Vieng Xai Statue 2

The soldier also stands with his foot propped on a bomb marked ‘USA’. This is a reminder of nine long years of US aerial bombardment, the heaviest bombing campaign in history, which scarred the country. Earlier this year the United States assigned $12 million towards the clearing of unexploded bombs in Laos, a not-so-secret legacy of the country’s sad history.

Image: Victory statue in Vieng Xay District, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Top – Photo © 2013 David Coleman ( Bottom – Courtesy Globloggersblog

The Divided Brothers of the Korean War

On 25 June 1950 North Korea surprised its southern neighbour with a sudden invasion, sparking the start of the Korean War. As the United States entered the fray on the side of South Korea, while China lent support to its communist ally, a bloody battle ensued that lasted until 1953.

In 1994 the War Memorial of Korea opened in Seoul. As visitors approach they are greeted by the eye-catching Statue of Brothers by Choi Young-jeep. The 11-metre-high sculpture shows two soldiers in a desperate embrace as they stand on a split dome landscape. The nearby panel tells the fictional story of two brothers meeting in battle during the Korean War: the elder an officer of the Republic of Korea (South Korea); the younger a North Korean soldier. As they recognise their fraternal love and reconcile, the statue symbolises the desire of the two peoples of Korea for reunification, while the cracked dome represents their ongoing division.

However, the statue also has a more ominous and provocative meaning. The larger, older brother is armed while the younger brother appears defenceless and weak. While the personification of South Korea looks down with a heroic, determined expression, North Korea looks up with admiration and gratitude. The sculptor has described the South Korean soldier’s embrace as “forgiving”, further emphasising the statue’s alternative role of glorifying the inevitable defeat of communism and the victory of democracy.

Statue of Brothers

Images: Choi Young-jeep, Statue of Brothers, 1994. War Memorial of Korea, Seoul.