Formerly an Official State Propaganda Artist of North Korea, Song Byeok was disillusioned after famine struck his home country in the 1990s. He lost his parents and sister and was brutally tortured after attempting to find food in China. He ultimately defected and now works as a satirist, using paintings to depict oppressive regimes and the people trapped within them—including many images of the dictatorship in North Korea.
After showing in DC last spring, both the artist and his paintings have returned, this time to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. During the run of You For Me for You, Song’s work will appear in full force throughout the Woolly lobby. Song will also contribute to events around the city as part of the theater’s House Lights Up program.
Joanna: When did you first decide to start creating satirical work? Was it difficult to make that transition?
Song: I began creating satirical work after arriving in South Korea. At the time, I carried so much anger and grief in my heart; but I was determined to heal and start fresh. Art was the best way to do this, and my early attempts at satire helped me to cope with and adapt to life in a society that enjoys democratic freedoms. Now I am permitted to lampoon authority, whereas before I would have suffered severe punishment.
The hardest part about producing satire in South Korea was the negative reception I received from others. I was free to produce the images I imagined, and the community was also free to criticize me, but oftentimes my socially ascribed status as a “defector” played a significant role in the negative feedback I received. I oftentimes felt misunderstood and marginalized. Now I am grateful to the growing number of fans worldwide, Korean and non-Korean, who support my work.
Everyone has multiple roles and identities. I hope that my artwork—and the personal transformation from propagandist to satirist it depicts—will allow me to be accepted as an artist, first and foremost.
Joanna: What is it about satire that promotes freedom?
Song: Propaganda serves the interests of power; oppositely, satire speaks truth to power. In this way, the artist oftentimes becomes a canary in the coal mine with respect to individual freedoms and liberties. If a satirist chooses to wield his talent in service of a common good not aligned with the interests of power, for example, but suffers censorship or persecution as a result, then this should prompt the larger community to consider and act. It is the obligation of every citizen in a democratic society to be vigilant.
Joanna: How do you hope people respond after seeing your work?
Song: I hope people respond by learning more. For sure I want my work to have an emotive impact at the outset, to inspire people to laugh, think, shout, or cry. But in the longer-term, I want the viewer to learn more after hearing my story and viewing my art.
Issues of human rights, social justice, and poverty are not limited to North Korea, but touch the entire world. That’s why I have taken to satirizing oppressive regimes worldwide.
I also want my work to reveal the character of North Korean people, who are smart, artistic, and capable of affecting positive change. That’s why I support peace on the peninsula.
Finally, it’s my hope that my art overcomes the deep divisions regarding the North Korea issue in our community. I want to promote trust while also retaining my credibility and independence as an artist. As my mission is to bring hope and dreams to the oppressed people of the world, I want to have an exhibit in Pyeongyang.
Joanna: Your paintings criticize very powerful people. Do you ever feel afraid when working on them?
Song: These paintings are about freedom from fear.
Joanna: Is there anything you think individuals can do to help North Korea?
Song: I believe defectors can provide great help with reunification when that day approaches. Understanding North Korea’s society and politics in a way much different than academics, politicians, and activists, an empowered defector community can serve the process of reconciliation between former adversaries.
I am also hoping individuals across the globe pay more attention to the situation in North Korea. Last night, I saw a long line of people waiting to attend You for Me for You. This inspired me greatly, as you would not see such a gathering in South Korea. I am hoping in the short-term that South Koreans learn more about North Korea, viewing this issue through a lens not cracked by ideology or apathy.
Song Byeok’s exhibit and You for Me for You run now through December 2 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archive/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.