It’s a painting, but propaganda, Kim Jong Il and dead rabbits make a good story

Kane Cunico
DINNER'S SERVED: Have a super meal with the Supreme Leader and some rabbits for good measure. May you live for a 1,000 years.

DINNER’S SERVED: Have a super meal with the Supreme Leader and some rabbits for good measure. May you live for 1,000 years.Emma Maxwell

Everyone loves a good story, especially one that goes with a visually provoking and odd painting. Because let’s face it, art for art’s sake is just sad no matter how good looking that print or painting is.

So when I poked my nose to find out more about Emma Maxwell’s piece, titled Dinner Time: Plate Number 4, featuring Kim Jong Il on a plate design, the Australian-born, Singapore-based artist got in touch with us and took some time to walk us through her trippy piece, which, according to her, will become a series.

I found the artwork intriguing, not least because it’s valued at SG$3,000, but because Emma weaves a multi-layered concept that’s entrenched in political references, artistic skill and bizarre stories. Dinner Time, which is currently featured at Kult Gallery’s exhibition, Girls Of The Underworld, is part of a showcase featuring 34 Singapore-based female artists creating pieces that capture their perspective on living and working in fast-paced modern Asia.

For Plate Number 4, Maxwell lets herself get caught up in the propaganda of advertising and of our times – in particular, propaganda from North Korea and Fox News. Conjuring the artwork’s concept, Maxwell’s mind is replete with thoughts of giant rabbits being eaten by Kim Jong Il, fantastical tales of Royal Doulton dinnerware and the use of art to communicate the terrors of the Spanish inquisition.

Most of all, Maxwell carries on featuring her recurring character in her body of work – the rabbit named Robert the First. Using oil on canvas, Maxwell reflects the same technique as the DPRK propaganda artists.

“It’s framed in a glitzy, tacky gold frame. This is reflective of most propaganda art featuring dictators. What is it with dictators and gold?” Maxwell reflects.

The artist, who is heavily influenced by Asian culture having lived in Singapore for six years, takes us inside her piece and her mind, and, as we find out, she’s quite the morbid storyteller. And that’s as fascinating as her artwork.

GOLD FRAMES ROCK: Maxwell's piece at Kult's Girls Of The Underworld.

GOLD FRAMES ROCK: Maxwell’s piece at Kult’s Girls Of The Underworld.Kane Cunico

It’s a clichéd question though appropriate for this piece, but what is your artwork, with Kim Jong Il on a plate with a spoon, about?
The work is about propaganda. Propaganda surrounds us in contemporary Asia and it’s fascinating. From the benign of the daily assault of advertisements (lose weight, be whiter, buy more luxury goods, be more popular) to the slightly more structured and delivered propaganda in the media, and then to the very extremes of propaganda – nationalistic propaganda. It surrounds us in Asia every day.

I have been fixated with North Korean propaganda as an extremity of mass manipulation for some time. Do the people really believe it? Do they ever lose “faith”? Does a constant flood of indoctrination really erase personal reasoning and free will?

This basis of this work depicts the tragic story in a series of 12 paintings of Robert the First, the world’s largest rabbit from Germany who was eaten by Kim Jong Il for his 65th birthday.

The Dinner Time series represents “Bunnykins” plates by Royal Doulton. They are synonymous with sweet little narratives involving bunnies up to quirky no good at the bottom of the plate. Well-behaved children who finish all of their food are treated to a jaunty little narrative at the bottom of their bowl. In this series of paintings, we follow Robert the First’s journey from Hero to Zero.

Plate Number Four features Robert and his breeding Doe, Mallory. They realise all is not quite right in the Hermit Kingdom. There’s something about that fat, short guy in the beige suit they can’t trust. As they stumble upon a vision of a children’s utopia of ruddy cheeks and good health, their noses twitch as they sense all is definitely not what it seems in this Communist paradise. More of a famine with no rice.

I’m fascinated by multi-layered narrative. During the Spanish Inquisition, artists such as Francisco de Zurbarán concealed very detailed narratives in seemingly benign still lives. A piece of rotted fruit covered in bugs wasn’t just gross – it was a coded message about the Inquisition to share with others the daily terrors the Spanish people went through. To speak out publicly would mean death. Art. It’s powerful.

RAGING RABBIT: Emma Maxwell with her sculpture of Robert the First, titled, Well Bred, Well Fed And Well Misled.

RAGING RABBIT: Emma Maxwell with her sculpture of Robert the First, titled, Well Bred, Well Fed And Well Misled.Brett Broadman

Tell us a little bit about your other work and your plans.
I want to finish the series of 12 paintings depicting the whole story of Robert the First. So that’s next.

I’m also going to be collaborating with a very talented artist/designer named Lukasz Kos, who is based in Shanghai, for an upcoming show. We’re going to be exploring manipulation in contemporary culture entwined with historical context. I’m very excited about the next year to come. It’s going to be busy.

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