Mansudae Art Studio claims to be the world’s largest art production studio. Taking up a whole district in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, Mansudae employs 4,000 staff to cater for all of the Hermit Kingdom’s propaganda needs: from banners and posters to statues and sculptures. However, it’s not just the Kim dynasty that has a penchant for imposing artworks.
Where do you lay to rest the ‘Father of Modern Angola’? In a 120-metre (394-feet)-tall monolith, of course. Located in a 12,000 sq km (4,633 sq mile) national park that also bears his name, Dr António Agostinho Neto’s mausoleum is one of the architectural wonders of Africa – shipped direct from North Korea.
Having headed up the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (PMLA) for 12 years and led the independence negotiations with Portugal in 1974, Neto became the newly-independent nation’s first president in 1975. However, his tenure only lasted four years, as he died in Moscow while receiving cancer treatment. His reward for such an illustrious life was to be embalmed Lenin-style and live eternally in a towering rocket-like obelisk in Angola’s capital, Luanda.
Mansudae also built the statue of Béhanzin, the eleventh and last king of Dahomey (modern-day Benin). Standing firm in the city of Abomey, the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, Béhanzin’s hand is raised in defiance to imperial rule.
When Béhanzin took the throne from his father, Glele, in 1889, the French came knocking on the door offering to take his Dahomey off his hands. The new king didn’t consider the offer of subjugation a reasonable one, deciding instead to fight a two-year war. However, even with a 15,000 strong male army and a group of 4,000 merciless female fighters called the Minos, Béhazin eventually succumbed to the French – one of the last traditional African kingdoms to fall to colonialism.
Unveiled in 2005, the Three Dikgosi Monument commemorates the leading figures in Botswana’s independence story. The 5.4-metre (17.7-feet)-tall bronze statues depict the three tribal chiefs (‘dikgosi‘) – Khama III of the Bangwato, Sebele I of the Bakwena and Bathoen I of the Bangwaktese – who travelled to London in 1895 to ask if their lands could be separated from South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The British said yes, thus creating modern-day Botswana, although it wasn’t until 1960 that it finally became an independent nation.
The statue is the most visited tourist spot in the capital of Gaborone, hitting 800 visitors a day at its peak. Yet, despite initially drawing the crowds, not everyone was best pleased that the North Koreans were chosen over a local construction company, while others maintain the Monument asserts the dominance of the Tswana people over other ethnic groups.
The statue of former DRC President Laurent-Désiré Kabila directs traffic in the middle of a roundabout in the capital Kinshasa. A former rebel leader, Kabila rose to power in 1997, ending the 32 year-reign of President Mobutu Sese Seko, who had become a poster boy for African dictatorship (think human rights abuses, corruption, embezzlement, nepotism, and Concorde flights to Paris for some retail therapy).
Hailed for bringing about change, Kabila’s reign was short-lived after he was assassinated by one of his personal bodyguards in 2001. Eight days later, his son Joseph stepped into his shoes and later decided to commission a 25-foot (7.6-metre) statue of his dear old pa. It has faced derision for its appearance, with a chubby Kabila seemingly wearing a jacket straight out of the Kim’s wardrobe.
The second highest Mansudae monument on the continent, the 50-metre (164-foot) Tiglachin Monument may soon be consigned to the rubbish heap of history. Donated by Mansudae in 1984, 10 years after the overthrow of Hailie Selassie, the star-topped monument commemorates the Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers who fought in the Ogaden war with Somalia, six years earlier. Ethiopia had looked on course for certain defeat until 16,000 Cubans arrived and saved their blushes, so a monument seemed a fitting thank you. However, the Tiglachin has long been neglected and many believe that it’s only a matter of time until it crumbles onto Addis Ababa’s floor.
Another imposing authoritarian-style statue. Another rebel leader-turned-President who didn’t die of natural causes. Another Mansudae bronze that has been criticised for its likeness. The nine-metre (30-foot)-tall statue of Samora Machel is archetypal Mansudae.
Sitting on a marble slab in the centre of Praça de Independencia in Maputo, the monument supposedly depicts Samora Michel, the former leader of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) who wrestled independence from the clutches of the Portuguese in 1974. He then served as the country’s first President until 1986, when he died in a plane crash. The Mansudae masterpiece was inaugurated on the 25th anniversary of his death on October 19, 2011.
Namibia just can’t get enough of Mansudae’s oeuvre, with four major pieces of work popping up between 2002 and 2014. From the pearly white State House to the brutish Independence Memorial Museum, the private Okahandja Military Museum and the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial, it’s fair to say the Namibian government has developed a taste for North Korean architecture. The Namibian people less so.
There has been criticism about the costs and lack of tendering process, with Heroes’ Acre supposedly doubling in cost from an initial N$60 million (USD$4.3 million) and the State House costing a reported N$400 million (USD$29 million). The bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Heroes’ Acre obelisk has been condemned for looking too much like Sam Nujoma – the first President of Namibia who also commissioned it – which, if the rumours were true, would be very greedy, given he’s already got his own Mansudae-made statue outside the Mansudae-made Memorial museum.
Commenting on the Namibia-North Korea love affair, Frans Kapofi, then serving as Namibia’s Minister of Presidential affairs, said that “we’ve relied on them for help to develop our infrastructure, and their work has been unparalleled”. So there you go.
Big, bronze and bullish, the African Renaissance Monument is the tallest statue in Africa and a prime example of Mansudae’s work. Completed in 2010, the 49-metre (161-foot) sculpture of man, woman and child stands on top of a 100-metre (328-foot)-high hill in the west of Dakar. Supposedly a symbol of defiance and future prosperity, it has been widely criticized and not just because of a dodgy deal with the North Koreans. From offensive design to religious insensitivity, exorbitant cost and presidential indulgence, the legacy of the African Renaissance Monument really is a bizarre story.
Mansudae may not offer buy one Heroes’ Acre, get one free, but it’s hard to imagine that Namibian politicians didn’t pluck theirs out of the Mansudae catalogue without spying Zimbabwe’s first.
An example of Mansudae’s early work on the continent (work began in 1981), this 57-acre burial ground outside Harare was built to commemorate Patriotic Front guerrilla fighters during the Rhodesian Bush War. It’s modelled after two AK-47s lying back-to-back and is still open for any contemporary Zimbabweans deemed worthy.
There are rumours that former dictator Robert Mugabe also commissioned two giant statues of himself to be unveiled after his death. Given his 37-year reign was cut short in a military coup in 2018, they might be gathering dust in Mansudae’s mega-warehouse in Pyongyang for a while longer.