K-Pop time: South Koreans fly to Pyongyang for rare concerts

Members of South Korean K-pop girl group Red Velvet leaves for Pyongyang at the Gimpo International airport in Seoul, South Korea, March 31, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 31 March 2018
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K-Pop time: South Koreans fly to Pyongyang for rare concerts

SEOUL, South Korea: From aging crooners to bubbly K-Pop starlets, some of South Korea’s biggest pop stars flew to North Korea on Saturday for rare performances that highlight the sudden thaw in inter-Korean ties after years of tensions over the North’s nuclear ambitions.
The concerts in Pyongyang on Sunday and Tuesday come ahead of a historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a border village on April 27. The meeting, which will precede a planned summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in May, could prove to be significant in the global diplomatic push to resolve the standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles program.
The 120-member group that flew to Pyongyang also included government officials, reporters and a taekwondo demonstration team that will perform in Pyongyang on Sunday and Monday. Another team of 70 South Korean technicians went to Pyongyang on Thursday to set up equipment.
A look at the singers who made the trip and a certain horse-dancing specialist who didn’t:
The legend
North Korea during stormier times had described the South’s society and culture as a “corrupt bourgeois lifestyle.” Still, the Pyongyang concerts wouldn’t be the first time southern pop singers have performed across the border.
It’s the second trip for the iconic Cho Yong-pil, perhaps South Korea’s most influential musician of the past 50 years. He staged a solo concert in Pyongyang in 2005 during a previous era of rapprochement between the rivals.
“It will be comfortable performing in the North as it is to perform in the South,” the 68-year-old singer said in a news conference at South Korea’s Gimpo Airport on Saturday. “There’s no reason for me or other singers to be nervous. We all finished rehearsing and will have a fun and comfortable time showing our music.”
Seoul hasn’t officially announced the titles of the songs by the South Korean artists. Cho’s “Dear Friend,” a ballad about a long-lost friend that reportedly drew an enthusiastic response from the Pyongyang crowd 13 years ago, will almost certainly be one of them.
It would be the third North Korean performances for each female balladeers Choi Jin-hee and Lee Sun-hee, who are relatively well-known in the North.
The 61-year-old Choi will likely sing her biggest hit, “Maze of Love,” which is rumored to have been a favorite of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the late father of current leader Kim. Lee, who at 53 still might have the best pipes in the business, may sing “To J,” which was one of several South Korean songs North Korean musicians performed during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
“I hope we can create a stage where we can make an emotional connection and convey the warm feelings between the South and North,” Choi said at the airport.
The girls
It won’t be all slow ballads in Pyongyang. It’ll be interesting to see how the North Koreans reacts to girl band Red Velvet, currently one of the most popular acts in the highly-competitive K-Pop scene.
The genre, which has a huge following across Asia, has been defined by synthesized music, powerful visuals and dance moves and teasing sexuality. South Korea’s military in recent years has used K-pop for psychological warfare, blaring it from loudspeakers along the heavily-armored border between the rivals.
“Happiness! Hello, it’s Red Velvet!” band member Seulgi cheerfully shouted at the airport. “We’re the ‘maknae’ (youngest of the group), so we will make sure to deliver our bright energy to the North,” said the 24-year-old.
K-Pop groups have performed before in North Korea. The now-disbanded Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L sang and danced in Pyongyang in 1999, as did boy band Shinhwa in 2003. Some of the artists later said the reaction from the audience was awkward and quiet.
Red Velvet may find a better reception more than a decade later as cultural tastes change, even in isolated North Korea. The North’s most popular music act is Kim Jong Un’s hand-picked Moranbong girl band, whose members often perform suggestive shimmies in short skirts with electric guitars.
Park Hyeong-il, an official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said North Korean officials didn’t show any discomfort about Red Velvet and also didn’t take issue with the “red” in the band’s name.
Red Velvet is originally a five-member band, but only four made the trip to Pyongyang — 22-year-old Joy stayed in South Korea to film a soap opera.
No 'Gangnam Style' please
Despite constant questioning from reporters, South Korean officials aren’t offering a clear explanation on why PSY, the singer of “Gangnam Style,” was left out of the concert lineup.
South Korea’s culture ministry spokesman Hwang Seong-un said without specifying that the YouTube rapper had been initially considered for the Pyongyang events before being excluded. He said he couldn’t confirm a media report that North Korean officials had rejected PSY.
“What I can say is that we explored ways to include him, but it didn’t work out,” Hwang said. “We hope there will be better opportunities for him in the future.”
It’s possible that officials from either the North or South concluded that PSY’s bizarre humor and highly sexualized music would be too provocative for the North Korean public.
It’s not that North Korea had entirely ignored the global Gangnam Style craze. In September 2012, the North posted a video on its Uriminzokkiri website of a horse-dancing PSY character that had a photo of conservative South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye’s face transposed on it. The lyrics had the character satirically defending Park’s late father, staunch anti-communist dictator Park Chung-hee.
Park went on to win the presidential race, only to be ousted from office and jailed over a corruption scandal in March last year.
Will Kim Jong attend?
The South Korean singers will perform at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theater on Sunday and then take part in a joint concert with North Korean artists on Tuesday at the 12,000-seat Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium.
It’s unclear whether North Korean leader Kim will show up in any of these performances. His presence would be seen in the South as a proper response to Moon’s attending the North Korean performances in February. But Kim also was accused by Seoul in previous years for harshly punishing, and even executing, North Korean officials and people who were caught privately consuming South Korean popular culture.
South Korea’s spy agency in 2014 told lawmakers that North Korea used firing squads to execute 10 officials that year for taking bribes or watching South Korean television dramas.


Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

Updated 21 May 2019
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Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

  • This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date
  • Zahrah Al-Ghamdi discusses her love of land art and organic materials

VENICE: The Al-Baha-born, Jeddah-based land artist and arts professor Zahrah Al-Ghamdi has an unwavering passion for creating arresting, large-scale installations composed of natural materials — sand, clay, rocks, leather and the like. Explaining her love of shaping these organic substances, Al-Ghamdi once said: “It’s important for me to smell the sand and feel it with my own hands, because those senses of touch and smell allow my work a synergy, and if I don’t get that synergy, I can’t work.”

This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date. The artist was chosen to inaugurate Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale —the art world’s largest public event and oldest contemporary art show — through an immersive solo exhibition entitled “After Illusion.”

Al-Ghamdi was jointly selected to represent the Kingdom by the recently developed Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, a homegrown arts foundation that aims to strengthen artistic activity within the Kingdom.

“To be honest, when I used to read about the Venice Biennale and its unique concept, I felt so far away from that world — it was like a dream,” Al Ghamdi tells Arab News. “In recent years, I’ve worked really hard and always hoped to achieve more through each work I would present. So when I received the call from the Misk Art Institute to participate at the biennale, it was like a dream I never thought I’d dream. I was elated but simultaneously felt a great deal of responsibility, as I am not representing (just) myself, but my country and all its artists.”  

Through her debut participation at the biennale, which is open to the public until November 24, Al-Ghamdi joins a canon of female artists putting on solo exhibitions and taking the lead in representing their countries to the world, including Larissa Sansour for Denmark, Laure Prouvost for France, Cathy Wilkes for Great Britain, Nujoom Al-Ghanem for the UAE and Naiza Khan for Pakistan.

In a dimly lit, almost celestial setting, “After Illusion” takes the viewer through a thoughtfully designed constellation of 52,000 manually manipulated leather spheres — or ‘creatures’ as Al-Ghamdi likes to call them — cascading down white drop curtains, while others are scattered on the ground. Adding intimacy to the overall experience, an audio recording of Al-Ghamdi working in her atelier plays within the pavilion’s interior.

'After Illusion,' the work Al-Ghamdi created for the Venice Biennale. (Supplied)

As with most of Al-Ghamdi’s works, the exhibition not only reflects an element of Saudi Arabia’s history and evolving identity, but also the artist’s own history, acting as an expressive form of self-portrait.

“One of the things that I liked about Al-Ghamdi’s work is that she makes her work by hand,” says pavilion curator and fellow Saudi artist Eiman Elgibreen. “This is something we are missing lately in the art scene — everyone is doing manufactured, plastic-y things. I was always interested (in the fact) that she works with something very traditional but transforms it into something really contemporary and new. The leather material used here reminds her of her grandfather herding, but now no one herds. And so she took the leather and transformed it, which I thought would go very well with our concept. Just imagine these creatures having a new life and then trying to settle in Venice, reassuring people that it’s not wrong to transform and change, because eventually you’ll reach a new reality that way.”

Al-Ghamdi, too, has undergone transformation in her life and career, evolving her artistic vision by exploring themes of memory and loss, exhibiting works in Dubai’s AlSerkal Avenue and London’s British Museum, among others, and participating in international residency programs and symposiums. It was Al-Ghamdi’s father — a teacher who enjoyed drawing — who first noticed her artistic abilities and encouraged her to pursue the arts.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts from Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, Al-Ghamdi traveled to England, where she gained Master’s and PhD degrees in Design and Visual Art. It was during her studies abroad that Al-Ghamdi’s artistic knowledge greatly expanded, and land art was her greatest influence.

Land art — which, in its modern sense, gained momentum during the 1970s — was practiced by pioneering Western artists including Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Walter De Maria. Resisting the commercialism of the art world and the confines of the gallery space, they turned instead to vast landscape settings for artistic expression — passionately sculpting into the ground or building massive installations using natural materials.

One of Al-Ghamdi's earlier works, 'What Lies Behind The Sun,' was constructed from thorns. (Supplied)

“In Saudi Arabia, the field of research was weak for me. But when I traveled abroad, I was introduced to a whole other world through the Internet and exhibitions,” Al-Ghamdi explains. “I was deeply influenced by land artists Smithson, Goldsworthy, and Long, and I was taken by their ability to use raw materials to express their feelings and attract the attention of viewers. They helped me see ‘nothing’ as something important, and that I could use raw materials to send a message. For instance, in a previous work I made, I placed tough thorns that were found in southern Saudi Arabia in a large circular shape. The thorns may indeed emit stories of pain, (but also), on the contrary, the notion of power and stability.”

Observing her experimental and thought-provoking oeuvre — from a carefully lined floor installation made of rubble to a layered gauze installation soaked in black paint — one may experience an unsettling sense of isolation, sadness, and vulnerability. A kind of destruction, almost.

“That is exactly how I want you to see my work. When I look at architecture, I do not necessarily see the beauty or happiness it exudes. My colleagues often ask me why I focus on the misery of architecture, but that’s what personally interests me — I need to see its truth. When I look at the old, abandoned buildings in the south of Saudi Arabia, they’re isolated and look unhappy to me, as they are surrounded by contradictory modern counterparts that do not attract me,” Al-Ghamdi says. “In my work, I am also trying to send a message to the viewer that the earth, which grants life and stability, suffers from the relentless actions of human beings through dryness, pollution, and war."