Nadia Khuzina (Надежда Хузина), a Soviet-born artist now living in San Diego, California, makes money by painting dictators.
Starting with the leaders of her native Russia, Khuzina quickly moved on to figures like Bush, Mugabe and Castro. But it didn’t take long for North Korea to grab her attention, with no other than Kim Jong Un becoming the focus of her latest art-project – an iPhone app called Slot Dictators.
The game, a virtual slot machine, sees players trying to line up rows of three icons; missiles, French fries, nuclear waste, or even of Kim Jong Un’s mugshot itself.
But the app – and her art– is unlikely to go down well in Pyongyang. That, however, seems to be the point for this child of the Soviet Union.
“I believe it is important that people see the world through more than one viewpoint. If all you are ever told is one thing by a person you perceive to be an authority, then you will believe it,” Khuzina explains on her website.
“I am a child of the information age and one who grew up in the Soviet Union, a country where propaganda and reality frighteningly diverged more than any popular religion ever has.”
NK News caught up with Khuzina to learn more about her intentions with the app – and why North Korea has become the focus of so much of her art.
1. Why did you decide to make this app?
I have moved from traditional fine art on canvas to primarily creating digitally on my iPad and Cintiq, and I really wanted to try animating something. My husband is a poker player, and my first parody of Kim Jong Il was revolving around a gambling theme.
We were forced (because of immigration issues) to live in Macau for a time before we came to the United States. There are many Koreans coming to gamble there, and Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Nam, lived around the block we found out. I have repeated the gambling theme in a lot of my work, with parodies of Obama, Putin, Romney, Kim Jong Un, and Nancy Pelosi. Nobody is safe.
“Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Nam, lived around the block”
The Kim Jong Il painting proved popular, and then the interest in North Korea grew even more once pictures of Kim Jong Un looking at things emerged. I had to follow up the Kim Jong Il parody with one involving the tastes of Kim Jong Un.
The popularity and interest in all things Korean also really shot up with Psy’s worldwide smash hit, and Kim Jong Un being named Time’s Man of the Year. It is no secret that like his half brother in Macau, Kim Jong Un has a keen interest in technology and gambling. This game is just an extension of the previous art really. I just wanted to bring him to life!
2. What has been reaction to the app so far? Have any Korean friends or colleagues seen it? What did they say?
We have partners in Seoul who sell our merchandise there, which is an extension of http://deardictators.com, the brand I created. They love the game!
Unfortunately, the app itself is actually banned in South Korea, but our products are still selling well there.
The South Korean government does not like anything to do with gambling at all, and since our app simulates gambling, it is not allowed in the South Korean App Store.
Apparently, you are not allowed in a South Korean casino either with a South Korean passport, it is only for foreigners. They really don’t like gambling it seems!
3. Isn’t your Kim Jong Un art offensive?
I don’t think so. I think Kim Jong Un would laugh if he saw it. It is all coming from a basis in truth, that’s why it resonates with people. It’s a comedic roast of him. None of my art is mean or racist like you frequently see in satirical art, especially when it comes to North Korea or Obama. Sad things don’t sell well, and neither do racist things.
My golf headcovers of Kim Jong Un of this are probably the best example of humor derived from something completely neutral and honest. I’m pretty sure Kim Jong Un would want one if he hasn’t smuggled one in already!
I think my works humanize him (as they do other leaders), which is a good thing, even if it is maybe showing some less than desirable traits a leader. North Korea is informationally isolated like the Soviet Union was, and your average American’s opinion of North Korea is pretty much, “Why don’t we just nuke them, and be done with it?”.
“I think Kim Jong Un would laugh if he saw it”
It’s quite scary sometimes the rhetoric you hear from all sides. Making something real and human takes away something from an ingrained mindset born out of ignorance. There are real people in North Korea, and they are worth the same as the people in South Korea or America.
The opinion of Dennis Rodman hanging out with Kim Jong Un is generally negative in America, but I think of this as the best diplomacy that is currently possible. It is good for North Korea to see a real American star, and it is good for America to see that if Kim Jong Un enjoys the company of such a person, that’s he’s probably not the launch-happy crazed dictator that the Western media tries to portray.
Politicians can talk about reunification all they want, but until there is common ground and a reason to do it, it will never happen. Dennis Rodman is making space for everyone to breath and for some reality to come out of the country, even if it is just watching party elites coming together for an exhibition basketball match currently.
4. How does Kim Jong Un compare to other leaders, in your view?
It’s hard to say what is true, and what isn’t sometimes. Clearly there are far too many political prisoners, and labor camps with awful conditions. This is nearly undisputed, so I can start from there.
During the Soviet Union we had a culture of gulags, and the horrors of them can still visibly be seen by just looking at the hand tattoos of the older generation. It’s a very ugly thing, but autocratic rule almost always relies on fear to maintain order. This is what is going on in North Korea now I think. Citizens are pitted against other citizens, and dissent is absolutely not allowed.
“Kim didn’t really choose to the position he was put in”
In my art I poke fun at a kind of unrefined youth in Kim Jong Un. I think North Koreans might think the same thing, and some elder party members might be willing to test him. He didn’t really choose to the position he was put in. I’m sure living a quiet life in Switzerland would suit him quite well, but he is playing the hand life dealt him. So there is going to be some nasty things he needs to do to protect himself, and that seems to be most of the news coming out. This is not different than with Stalin.
I do hope that after things stabilize some more, that he can be made a deal he couldn’t refuse, and he will have the authority to come up with a scheme with this authority to reunify Korea. This should be his ultimate goal.
I also hope he doesn’t actually enjoy the stress and responsibility of absolute power like Gaddafi did. Gaddafi was also given a chance to end it peacefully, but choose to stand his ground. It didn’t work out, and history has shown us that most dictators don’t like to give up their power after they risked their lives to get it. It also takes two sides to get something done. America in particular likes to undermine world leaders, and then to threaten them with force. This strategy might not be so wise anymore in an era with nuclear weapons.
5. Any hopes to ever go to North Korea?
I really want to go to the DMZ when I visit our partners in Seoul.
I don’t think I would risk going to North Korea proper given my artwork, so my Google Earth tours of North Korea will probably be it for a while.
In fact, I am not returning to Russia either given my recent cover for Piaui Magazine in Brazil, which featured President Putin kissing Snowden. I view it as too big of a risk.
I am a huge supporter of equality, and despite admiring some of the things Putin has done, I absolutely condemn his party’s intimidation of some of our brightest citizens, and his rubber stamp of these actions. I am focusing my art in the next couple months on Putin and Sochi.
Find out more about Nadia at her website: http://www.nadiakhuzina.com/
All artwork: Nadia Khuzina
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