In DaFen, a suburb of the coastal city of Shenzhen in the southeast Guangdong province, long-held ideas of impersonal mass production meet the entirely personal, and individual, process that is the creation of art. The epicentre of oil painting in China – and the largest mass producer of such artwork in the world – this creative hub came about in 1989 thanks to an oil painting businessman from Hong Kong, Huang Jiang, who led a group of around 20 artists in the creation of specialist reproductions of famous paintings, along with original pieces to order.
The colourful community has since grown to over 5,000 artists and, according to China Daily, these talented craftsmen and women manufacture approximately 60 per cent of the total global trade volume. There are an estimated 700 art galleries and 100 oil painting companies within DaFen and it is considered by district-level and town-level governments to be a key area for cultural construction, with investments being made to assist the changing environment, implementing regulations and offering guidance to the oil painting market, while simultaneously promoting and publicising it.
The ability to churn out such a large number of canvases is, in part, due to the traditional Chinese technique of teaching art, whereby a student will spend years learning to duplicate existing works. Only once they can produce skilful and exact copies will they move on to producing their own work. This means the artists at DaFen can produce several highly accurate replicas per day. Making a living from art has always been notoriously difficult across the globe and many artists in China find that this production of replicas is their only reliable source of income.
Official policy states that the community must ensure that the paintings they produce are replicas of pieces whose original artist died more than 70 years ago. This means they are out of copyright. That being said, there are exceptions and pieces from Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí show their faces on the walls of DaFen. The other stipulation is that these paintings must be clearly replicas, unless an original piece has been specifically commissioned of the artists.
DaFen has been referred to by many as an ‘art factory’ and, in many ways, it lives up to this image. However, whilst it specialises in reproductions, DaFen is wonderfully unique. The whole town breaks out of conformity, feeling like an overgrown artist commune. Artworks spill out on to the streets and laugh and joke with each other as they work. It is mass production by individuals, taken from the factory line and onto the shop fronts, with each artist having their own pavement spot or small, open, workshop.
Although the community specialises in creating replicas (something not generally deemed as ‘creative’ in the West), the people of DaFen are still definitely artists and the town has the same relaxed, creative atmosphere as any other artistic community in the world. Even China’s infamous ‘one child’ birthing policy seems less evident with groups of children roaming the street, playing, sharing toys and drawing on the pavements, involved subconsciously in the pervasive artistic atmosphere.
The main market for DaFen’s productions has traditionally been the West. However, over the last few years, the boom in China’s economy and its subsequently growing middle class, alongside the economic downturn in many Western countries, has shifted the balance to mainly Chinese buyers. This has meant the artists have had to change their techniques to satisfy the differing wants of the Chinese market. With recent changes in the China’s economy, the community of DaFen will no doubt adapt itself once again. The price for these artworks comes at a fraction of gallery prices, and almost leaves us asking the question of what the real value is of the paintings that line our walls.
To find out more and buy your own reproductions: www.dafenvillageonline.com
Words: Fredrik Keate
Photography: Ester Keate