From propaganda to pop art – Song Byeok's paintings are often about coming to terms with life outside North Korea. Behind him is the painting "Child Warrior," depicting the curious North Korean custom of dressing children in military clothes on special birthdays. Song painted the boy with his eyes closed.
From propaganda to pop art – "I risked my life on this painting," Song says of "Take Off Your Clothes," which created a stir by putting the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in a Marilyn Monroe pose. "In some ways, this picture represents me," Song said. "I hope after North Korean society opens up, people will debate it." It is used on this poster to promote Song's recent exhibit in Atlanta.
From propaganda to pop art – North Korea built hundreds of statues of Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In "Beloved Father of Our Country," women in drab military clothing pay tribute to their "Great Leader."
From propaganda to pop art – It was only after he lived outside North Korea that Song began to understand freedom and why it was so important. This, Song says, is his main message as an artist.
From propaganda to pop art – Like much of Song's work, this painting, "Hope," is about the desire for a better future for his homeland. "Defectors naturally want to help things inside North Korea change," he said. "My way of doing that is to paint."
From propaganda to pop art – A work done in classic Tang Dynasty style, "Around the Tumen River" looks as if it could have been painted centuries ago. But an up-close view reveals the hard realities of life in North Korea. Farmers work without tractors, soldiers survive on fish they catch in a river, and people in hills scour for edible plants.
From propaganda to pop art – In some ways, it's not a far jump from propaganda to pop art. In "Let Me Taste It," Song pays tribute to Andy Warhol, freedom of expression and the difficulties of life in North Korea.
From propaganda to pop art – Before his death in December, North Korean society revolved around the Dear Leader. But in "General and Tribes People," Song shows Kim Jong Il's shadow shrinking to a taper when around people who don't buy into the myth.
From propaganda to pop art – Like most North Korean families, Song's parents didn't want him to wear his shoes unless it was necessary. "Shoes cost parents three or four days' wages," Song said, "and children were expected to stitch their own repairs." In "Barefoot Boys," a T-shirt says "Nothing to Envy in the World."
From propaganda to pop art – "Mass Game" depicts a trademark image of North Korea, where thousands participate in exercises of unity and patriotism.
From propaganda to pop art – It's not uncommon for North Koreans to describe the Dear Leader as a surrogate parent. In "A Loving Father and His Children," Song replaces the chubby, square-jawed children he painted as a propagandist with realistic images of child beggars found around many North Korean rail stations. Passers-by will sometimes pay them to sing; a popular song is "Our General is a Great Leader."
From propaganda to pop art – In "Hillside Slums," the painting on the left, an image of Song's mother dominates the skyline over the house he grew up in. She told Song she was worried about Kim Jong Il's health before she herself died in the famine of the 1990s. By putting Kim in drag in "Fall Into My Arms," Song glamorizes all things foreign and wonders whether life would not be more exciting for North Korea if it was opened to the outside.
From propaganda to pop art – The girls in "Flower Children" are waving and posing for foreigners in the way they've been trained: brimming with confidence that they live in the world's greatest country. Song painted them with their eyes closed, blind to the reality of their poverty.
From propaganda to pop art – Song says he feels a bond with people from other countries where basic rights are restricted. "Freedom" expresses his hope that people everywhere will break their chains the way he broke his.
From propaganda to pop art – Song takes a cigarette break with Greg Pence, an American who saw Song's work in Seoul, was moved by its power and organized the funds for an exhibit in the United States.