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Professor among few who study art of North Korea

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas art history professor is one of few scholars who have traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, specifically to study how art has helped shape the country’s narrative from triumphant revolutionaries to communist dynasty.

Marsha Haufler, a professor of art history and associate dean for international and interdisciplinary studies for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, has traveled to North Korea fives times since 2007. She is working on a book that examines the mosaic murals created and planned in North Korea during the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s eras.

Although a specialist in Chinese art, Haufler also teaches Korean art history and first went to North Korea to visit ancient sites and museums to collect material for a course called the Art and Culture of Korea.

“I had all kinds of books and pictures from South Korea, but very little from North Korea. It’s hard to do a survey of a region when you don’t have examples from half of it,” she said.

On her first visit, the contemporary mosaic murals caught Haufler’s eye. Found in subway stations, on the exteriors of stadiums, museums and theaters, and on freestanding “billboards” along major streets, these mosaics are a primary form of public art, especially in the capital Pyongyang, where they combine with sculptures to create open-air galleries.

“I didn’t go to study the mosaics. They are just what hit me,” Haufler said. 

Haufler notes she had little to no access to the mosaics’ production process or to how North Korean citizens receive the work; however, much can be learned from analysis of the murals’ subjects, styles, techniques and placement.

The mosaics are related to the socialist realist art created throughout Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century, and find counterparts, for instance, in the Moscow Metro.

The mosaics borrowed from the techniques, theme, style and placement of Soviet Union mosaics. The paintings and posters of China’s Cultural Revolution also influenced the North Korean work. However, while the Soviet Union and China moved away from these styles in the 1970s and 1980s, their grip on North Korea’s visual culture stayed strong.

Haufler found that early North Korean mosaics helped promote the regime’s utopian promises with visions of a socialist paradise on earth and images of happy, well-fed people with eyes lifted to a bright future. After Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, the mosaics began to represent the “Great Leader” as the “eternal president” and his son Kim Jong Il as his rightful heir and military leader who required unswerving devotion in order to face external military threats.

Haufler’s most recent trip was in the fall of 2013, when she traveled to the country to take advantage of an opportunity to see indoor mosaics. A trip the previous year, which focused on Buddhist temples as well as on mosaics, coincided with the end of the country’s 100-day period of mourning for Kim Jong Il, who died in December of 2011.

Haufler has published two scholarly articles on North Korean art. “Mosaic Murals of North Korea” appeared in the international symposium volume Exploring North Korean Arts. And, this past fall, Haufler published “Re-inscribing Mount Myohyang: from the Pohyon Temple to the International Friendship Exhibition," which examines the country’s preservation of Buddhist temples to political ends and the recasting of a famous Buddhist pilgrimage destination as devotional site dedicated to the Kim dynasty.

Haufler expects to complete a book on four decades of North Korean mosaics, illustrated with her own photographs, next year.

New M.A. Program

The Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) at The University of Kansas is offering a new M.A. program in Contemporary East Asian Studies, beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year. Full-time students with prior East Asian language training will be able to complete the degree within 12 months. For more information about this M.A. program including specific requirements for admission, visit, or contact Ayako Mizumura, Assistant Director of CEAS, by email ( or call 785-864-1478. You can also download our program flyer (PDF) Please share this information with your friends, colleagues and students! We are looking forward to hearing from you.

KU Works for Kansas: A Free Undergraduate Study Tour of Japan

CEAS conducted a Kakehashi Project-Bridge for Tomorrow study tour to Japan for 23 students from colleges and universities throughout Kansas in summer 2014. The tour, which was funded by the Japan Foundation and led by CEAS members Maggie Childs (core faculty) and Nancy Hope (staff), visited selected sites in Tokyo and Shizuoka June 23rd - July 3rd.  For more about the Project, view the video, the itinerary, or excerpts from participant reports. This fall, the Kansas students will make presentations about Japan at local elementary and secondary schools, while CEAS will host 23 students from Shizuoka University who are visiting KU in early spring as part of their Kakehashi tour of America.  

We have a great Chinese History Lecture coming up! Mark your calendars for April 2, for the Wallace Johnson Memorial Lecture in Chinese History. The speaker this year is Jeff Snyder-Reinke, an Associate Professor of History at The College of Idaho. He will talk about "Bones, Babies, and the Politics of Burial in Late Imperial China." See flyer for more details.

We have a great Chinese history lecture coming up! The Wallace Johnson Memorial Lecture is April 2.

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