Sun Mu is not the artist’s actual name. It’s a nom de plume that uses a combination of two Korean words that translate to ‘The Absence of Borders’. It not only represents what he feels is the transcendence of art but also the literal military demarcation line that keeps the Korean people separated.
Sun Mu, who was trained to create posters and murals for the Communist government, is the first defector from the North to have won fame as a painter in the South by applying that same style of propaganda to biting parodies of the North Korean regime. His exhibition in 2007 brought the artist international recognition and he has since been invited to show his work at galleries around the world. Sun Mu often depicts images of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, a subject considered sacred which only a few artists are authorised to paint. However, Sun Mu’s depictions of the Kims are unlike any official portraits you would see created under the regime. The artist paints Kim Jong-Il not in his trademark Mao outfit, but instead in sports gear like a Nike jacket or Adidas track pants.
His renown, however, is shaded by political concerns. In addition to adopting a pseudonym, he refuses to allow his face to be photographed, afraid that the family he left behind might face reprisals for his art. His concern for their safety comes as a reaction to the three-generation rule applied in North Korea which punishes the entire family of a defector if their crime is seen as an affront to the state. Defection alone is punishable by death and Sun Mu’s role as a critic of the regime would be considered as a major offense. South Korean news outlets often refer to him as the “faceless” or “nameless” artist from North Korea.
“I Am Sun Mu”
Available on Netflix
In late 2015, ‘I Am Sun Mu’, a film by Director Adam Sjöberg was released. The film portrays Sun Mu’s journey from his homeland and his preparations for an exhibition of works in Beijing, which was eventually shut down by government officials. Watch the trailer here: