Why are so many Egyptian military sites decorated with North Korean art?

A little-known exchange project from the 1990s saw Egyptians trained to paint like artists from the pariah state

Why a museum in Egypt is full of North Korean art

Why a museum in Egypt is full of North Korean art ?
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Tucked away in a vestibule at a prominent Coptic site east of Cairo, where the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary are believed to have sought refuge, is a large vibrant oil painting of the Holy Family.

At first glance, it seems commonplace enough for where it is, but as one begins to look closer, one is surprised to discern that Jesus, Mary and Joseph are painted with markedly Asian features. Towards the bottom of the painting, the artist has signed their nation's name: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

A number of military sites in Egypt are also decorated with art of the DPRK, popularly known as North Korea. This includes the October 6 Panorama in Heliopolis and the National Military Museum in Cairo's historic Al Khalifa district.

Some of the artworks, such as the gargantuan panorama commemorating Egypt’s victory against Israel in 1973 and a statue of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser among many others, were donated by the North Korean government to Egypt.

Others, following the same distinctive style, were created by Egyptians trained by North Korean military officers.

“It all began when I found out that the military had requested a group of artists to travel on a one-year mission to North Korea. I had the talent ever since I was young so I applied,” Mohamed Abdel Kader, a retired military officer and sculptor, recounts.

“After two years of tests in skills, precision and nerves, we were given a drawing test by North Korean instructors. They sat a model down and we had to draw him in graphite and oils. Our work was appraised and I was admitted.”

Mr Abdel Khader was in the first cohort of students that enrolled in a 1995 training programme through which Egyptian military officers were given three-year instruction courses at home by North Koreans in classical realism, a now passe style made famous by Orientalist painters in the nineteenth century. The courses continued until 2008 when the protocol ended.

Mr Abdel Kader was one of 40 students from hundreds who took the aptitude tests. A new round of students enrolled every three years and starting with the second instruction course in 1998, Egyptian graduates from the first course were invited to instruct some of the classes alongside their North Korean teachers.

By 2008, the course was being taught entirely by Egyptians who studied under the North Korean mission.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea's anti-US stance on international matters put it at odds with much of the liberal world.

Its aggressive foreign policy, nuclear programme and support of other regimes around the world made North Korea the pariah state it is now.

A cult of personality surrounding the Kim family, who have ruled North Korea since its founding in 1948, has also been repeatedly denounced by international governments. The Kims are accused of inhumane practices against their populace, who continue to be ruled with an iron fist.

But in North Korea, art has played a key part in state propaganda and government messaging.

The original Egyptian-North Korean military agreement included a year of study in Pyongyang, which was cancelled due to unfavourable political conditions when the time came for Mr Abdel Kader to depart. Instead, North Korean instructors came to Egypt. Mr Abdel Kader has to this day never visited North Korea, despite an admiration for the talent of the rogue state's artists.

“In my opinion, North Korean artists are perhaps the best in the world,” Mr Abdel Kader said. “Their culture nurtures talent in children from a young age. The more I read about their philosophy in art, the more respect I had for them.

“We didn't know much about North Korea when we signed up. Just bits and pieces but nothing concrete about how the world viewed them and so on. When the time came to start, we were taken to the North Korean embassy in Cairo, where were shown these books with photos of North Korea and its people. We found it quite charming and were excited to start.”

Mr Abdel Kader, 53, whose belief in military ideals of self-discipline is shown in his meticulously ironed and colour-matched outfit and strong build, was taken with his instructors and their uncanny ability to realistically depict whatever they were painting.

A staunch Arabist, Mr Abdel Kader was also moved by the North Koreans’ fascination with the Orientalist movement, which produced a number of works on Arab cities and culture, he recounts.

“What drew me to the style was that its central focus was recording history as it happened. It was very realistic. Classical realism depicts the truth exactly. Not how the artist feels about it. You don’t see the brushstrokes on the canvas. It was truly meticulous work,” he explains.

“The style does not exaggerate anything like abstract or surrealist art, those are based on the artist’s take on their subject. With classical realism, the artist learns to put their feelings aside and only looks at what is before them.”

The instructors’ discipline and ability to produce realistic still lifes in minutes quickly won over the group of young Egyptian artists, and Mr Abdel Kader says that the more he spent time with them, the more he felt as though “I had met Muslims who had never known Islam”, borrowing a proverb he had heard in his youth.

“They loved their country and were committed to its success and I admired that.”

During field trips that the students took to particularly picturesque locations around Cairo to paint still lifes, they would often come into contact with fine arts students from various universities in Egypt.

Often the students were perplexed to see the military officers being taken around by their North Korean instructors.

At times, they would hurl insults at the military trainees, accusing them of not being real artists and of serving a political agenda. Abdel Kader and others who joined the instruction course continue to receive such insults on social media.

Mr Abdel Kader continues to make commissioned sculptures. His latest works include a bust of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and a bronze relief of a woman which will go up at a square in Cairo.

His past work includes a statue of former interior minister Ahmed Rushdi, which went up at a public square in the city of Menoufia, north of Cairo.

Aside from the training programme for the Egyptian officers, the agreement signed between Cairo and Pyongyang would also provide Egypt with a comprehensive visual account of its 7,000-year history.

Rendered by North Korean artists working in state-owned studios – which by the 1990s had become some of the world’s largest producers of propaganda art commissioned by foreign governments – were paintings, reliefs, sculptures and statues depicting Egypt’s victories and glories.

While some of the depictions were of pharaonic military victories, others were of former presidents Anwar Sadat, Nasser and Hosni Mubarak as well.

Relations between North Korea and Egypt date back to the 1950s, when the government of Kim Il-Sung, the almost mythological founder of modern North Korea, came out vocally in support of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal from under British colonial control.

The two countries sent repeated diplomatic missions to one another throughout the 1950s. By 1963, each side had sent an ambassador to the other, who set up permanent diplomatic missions.

The Mansudae Art Studio, a hub of art production in Pyongyang, remains one of the world’s most prolific makers of what has been called propaganda art. Opened in 1959, the studio has produced monuments for 18 African and Asian countries as of 2014.

Updated: May 23, 2023, 10:14 AM