Wednesday, October 27, 2021

North Korea empowered Batswana artists

For reasons that have never been adequately disclosed, Botswana has so fallen out with North Korea that it cut off all ties with the communist state. However, evidence of North Korea’s presence in Botswana will forever literally loom large. To honour the three dikgosi who went to London in 1895 to remind the British government of its promise to protect Bechuanaland Protectorate, the Botswana government decided to erect a monument in the heart of the capital city. A tender was floated and there was overwhelming response from local artists.

However, design samples that Btv would later show were proof positive that this was one job that Botswana had no absolutely capacity to do. The programme appeared to have been a public relations exercise to douse a firestorm that was raging all across the country after the tender was floated internationally and won by a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Projects. When the Three Dikgosi Monument towered above everything else within the vicinity, the Mansudae artists should have gone back home but didn’t. The next phase of their assignment was to teach some Batswana artists tricks of the trade.

Facilitated by the National Museum and Art Gallery, this training was held at the Thapong Visual Arts Centre in Gaborone. Sunday Standard did observe the training for one full day and there was general appreciation among the artists about what they were learning. One of the artists who received the Mansudae training says that he “learnt a lot” from the North Korean instructors. The latter were then and are now, drawn from elite art academies in North Korea. As we reported last week, Botswana’s business dealings with what the west calls a “rogue state” has drawn the attention and ire of the United Nations. The international body has imposed sanctions on North Korea because of its long-running nuclear weapons development programme. North Korea supposedly uses money it makes through Mansudae to fund this programme.

As a UN member, Botswana should not have done business with North Korea and the Three Dikgosi Monument has come under controversial focus. Americans wouldn’t be unhappy about a North Korean structure standing taller than their embassy but also about the canon of art that was used to make such structure. The monument was rendered in socialist realism, a style of art that was developed in the early days of the Soviet Union and soon spread to other socialist countries. The government may have cut ties with North Korea but the country has left its ideological imprint in Botswana’s seat of government. Botswana was not the only country that has used Mansudae’s services.

The company built a statue of Samora Machel in Mozambique and Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its most iconic structure is in Senegal where it built the African Renaissance Monument, which holds the record of being the tallest in Africa. Mansudae has done its most work in Namibia where it built the Heroes Acre, the Okahantja Military Museum, the official presidential residence and the Independence Memorial Museum. If the UN really wants to haul countries that did business with North Korea over the coals, it will find, on the list of culprits, a First World that it cannot bully the way it does Third World ones. In 2005, Germany commissioned Mansudae to reconstruct an art nouveau relic from 1910 that was melted down for its metal during World War II.

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