Wandering to the next page

Tourist Map
of Pyongyang

101 x 126 cm
Pen and ink on cotton board
Pyongyang follows a fourteen-day tour led by two local guides. The work is informed by aural descriptions, walking, and thousands of reference photos. Anecdotal accounts intertwine with shared knowledge from North Korean specialists, buttressed by access to significant art collections. The final work blends this volume of information with imagined scenes, stemming from limitations of access to the landscape. A part-real, part-imagined panorama of North Korea’s capital, Tourist Map of Pyongyang presents a stage-view of realities and unrealities, facilitating conversion about culture and humanity, and unravelling stereotypes often viewed through the lens of biassed media and geopolitical tension.

A visitor’s view

Pyongyang radically altered my conventional process. Here, I was a visitor, invited to observe but unable to immerse fully into place. Typically, I wander freely, without boundaries. North Korea’s capital edited that prerogative. Instead, scheduled and tightly planned, I walked well-trodden routes as I was invited to marvel, like tourists before me, at a ‘socialist wonderland’. The dissonance between place and process became a dominant theme throughout my time in the city, and later, during the drawing process itself.
For many, this imposing landmark, The Ryugyong Hotel is the signature building of Pyongyang. Part science fiction, part pyramid, the shadow cast by this mega-structure reaches across people’s minds as it does across the city.
Mirae Scientists Street (Future Scientists Street) was built to symbolise the North Korean government’s commitment to science and technology. Its nostalgic, futuristic buildings are reminiscent of the retro-futurism movement. This style of architecture has spread across the city. Peppered throughout the artwork are small Jetsons-like spacecraft.

Granular discovery

My aim was to convey what a truly planned city felt like. I took thousands of reference photos and swelled my understanding of the place from knowledge held in books, online, and through expert shared accounts. As a tourist in Pyongyang, the urban expanse felt paradoxically close enough to touch, yet always just out of reach. My inclination was to wander off the beaten track, but reality dictated I filled the gaps with imagined interpretation. The work became an investigation of a city as prescribed to me; merging the imagined with the real through reflections on design and cultural deposits.
The first North Korean female pilot is depicted flying through the air. I was told she had dinner with Kim Il Sung in a hidden bunker, inside a wooded valley. Legend has it that black dragons also once lived in the valley, and that they danced in the white clouds.
A universal thirst for beer defines North Korea’s selection of breweries and microbreweries. This imagined site is included as a feature from a district I was not allowed to visit.
This is the sacred Mt. Paektu – the birthplace of Korean people, and, apparently, the second leader Kim Jong Il. The mountain borders China, many miles away. It is used frequently for symbolism, design, and is drawn here as a backdrop to the city. The tortoise and serpent are one of the Four Guardian Deities pictured in the artwork, appearing alongside a dragon, tiger and phoenix, whose role it is to ward off evil influences.
The border – inspired by pomp and circumstance – houses the communist star, crops, and swagging that alludes to a theatrical performance and celebration. A silhouette of the Arch of Reunification is repeated, highlighting the importance of dialogue and peace with South Korea.

Unexpected liberty

The city of Pyongyang is free from advertising or other furniture typically found in modern metropolises. Whether this omission is constrictive or helpful to daily life became the question posed on each street corner. For me, the city created an unexpected sense of calm – the long boulevards, vast public squares, and imposing monoliths inviting unyielding emotional response.
The colourful and elegant traffic women have now left the streets of Pyongyang. Once famed for their perfectly choreographed directional dances that involve immense levels of concentration and discipline, they have now been replaced by men.
An iconic traffic women who directed Pyongyang's cars

New Terrain

Pyongyang’s topography and modelled landscapes form commanding vistas that dominate the senses. Each district and landmark appears to be purposely placed for impact, progressing a distinct narrative forward. Grandiose views across the city provide a collective feeling of place and its underlying Juche ideology  – the city’s plan, architecture, and structures carry an otherworldly sense of power. Spending time in a place so diverging from the typical Western experience unfolded as a sensorial expedition. The work was thus created as a tool for encouragement, inviting viewers to reconsider Pyongyang and the people who live there, to grow a conversation begun with guided exploration and expanded through art.
The Juche Tower is omnipresent by the river and serves as a beacon for the Juche ideology. It looks over the People’s Square, which is mostly seen via screens around the world, hosting grand and imposing military parades.
A father and daughter look out from the top of the Juche Tower.
The Chomilla Statue gives dimension to a soaring figure of Pegasus, ridden by citizens into a thriving metaphorical future. It is one of the most meaningful symbols in North Korea; so popular in fact, that Chomilla is the nickname for the national football team.
The Chomilla Statue
The Party Foundation Monument, comprises three giant hands holding a hammer, sickle and brush. What struck me immediately was the alignment of the monument with Mansu Hill, across the river, where two immense bronze statues of the country’s leaders stand. They face the hands of the workers below them. This powerful connection was transmitted across the residential districts for all to see.
The Party Foundation Monument

Koryo Studio

Tourist Map of Pyongyang was produced with the support of Koryo Studio — a British-run initiative that helps international creatives gain access to and an understanding of North Korea. Past artists have included the likes of Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer for his series DPR Korea: Grand Tour, and Michael Palin for the BAFTA-nominated documentary, Michael Palin In North Korea.
A Koryo Studio bus is waiting for visitors outside the Koryo Hotel.
At the Mass Games, thousands of participants perform in jaw-dropping, synchronised, and regimented sequences, celebrating national holidays and birthdays of leaders.