Art & Expositions

Meeting the Dongmu

by Christine Cibert

Exhibition of photographies on women in North Korea seen by a French woman, presented on 4 scrolls, as a road trip film, in a traditional Japanese house, Anewal Gallery in Kyoto, part of KG+ Festival, satellite event of Kyotographie.

Between April 2006 and December 2008, thanks to my husband’s work for the United Nations, we went to live in Pyongyang, North Korea. 

The North Koreans fearing that we portray their country in a negative way, it was often a very delicate task to take good shots.

Photography is not so appreciated, especially the one taken by foreigners who tend to take pictures off the beaten track.

Generally speaking, beyond our cultural differences, the linguistic barrier and often through the prism of the translation, human contacts are rare and difficult to establish.

My best visiting card was the birth of my son Jun. This made a great difference as I went from being « the wife of my husband » to « the mother of Jun ». His birth made the news and was broadcasted on North Korean television during one month, announced by the famous news presenter as the 340th foreign baby and 1st French ever born in Democratic Popular Republic of Korea.

It is first and foremost with other women that I tried to establish bonds : my Korean language teacher, my husband’s colleagues, my tailor, the nurses and mid-wives of the Maternity Hospital, my baby-sitter, saleswomen in stores, my cleaning ladies, karaoke singers, sauna attendants, museums guides, art galleries staffs, artists, performers in mass-dances, the traffic ladies in the capital’s crossroads, Air Koryo stewardesses, hairdressers, masseuses, other young mothers, Red guards…

They are the ones who call themselves and that we foreigners also call with humor dongmu Dongmu means comrade in choson-mal, the language of North Korea.

However, in the most Confucian country of Asia, strongly anchored in its ancestral traditions, all these North-Korean women are above all wives and mothers with limited freedom. Always elegantly dressed in their superb colourful handbook, neat suits or uniforms, with discreet and light make-up, they are usually smiling and polite. But beyond this mandatory mask of optimism required by the North-Korean regime, when barriers manage to fall, even just a little, they appear as warm, sincere and even friendly. If these women don’t reveal themselves so easily, it’s often because of embarrassment, timidity with respect to the foreigner, or fear of being denounced. And if by chance they show themselves as they are, we can perceive sadness and loneliness caused by a harsh life with very strict rules.

All these precious moments of human exchanges either in hiding or in haste were the most intense of my stay.