Dafen Art Village, part I: From copy to creative in Shenzhen?


In this first post in a two-part series reporting on the contemporary art scene in Shenzhen, southern China, Art Radar introduces Dafen Village, reveals the latest developments in China’s “City of Design” and enquires into the prospect of a creative Shenzhen.

View of a street in Dafen. Image by Art Radar.

View of a street in Dafen. Image by Art Radar.

First stop: Dafen Art Village

From Luohu station, the transport hub situated at the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a half-an-hour taxi ride will take you north to Dafen village located in Longgang district. Nowadays, taxi drivers are familiar with the name Dafen. Locals puff up a little with pride as tourists inquire about this cultural hotspot.

The situation was very different thirty years ago, according to a keynote presentation made at the Fourth International Association for China Planning conference. In the 1980s, Dafen was a rural village of 300 native born urban villagers and less than 10,000 migrant workers who had moved closer to the newly opened Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen in search of work and better prospects. With an annual per capita income of less than 200 yuan, even in the 1990s Dafen was considered a “problem village” (wenticun) with high crime rates and a population of low level of education.

Today the village boasts over 800 galleries and workshops, and is home to over 5,000 artists and painters. Its 17,000 square meter Dafen Art Museum is the largest village-level (cunji) art museum in China. The trade volume of its oil painting industry is estimated to have reached 80 million yuan in 2003, further skyrocketing to 430 million yuan towards the end of the decade to account for one-third of the global commodity oil painting market.

Part of the central open plaza at Dafen oil painting village. One can see building blocks painted with different colours at the background - Dafen was designed with the European town as its inspiration. Image by Art Radar.

Part of the central open plaza at Dafen oil painting village. One can see building blocks painted with different colours in the background - Dafen was designed with the European town as its inspiration. Image by Art Radar.

As China’s economy continued to flourish in the 1990s, there was an increasing awareness of the commercial value to be harvested in “cultural resources”. In addition, there was a desire to strengthen China’s soft power through cultural promotion. The government began to invest more resources in the growth of the cultural industries (wenhua change), and the metamorphosis of Dafen owes much to this process.

“Problem village” to international art brand

In the summer of 1989, a Hong Kong businessman wandered away from Shenzhen’s city centre into the peripheral town of Buji. Here he found a small village with dilapidated houses. He told surprised villagers that he wanted to rent their houses to paint. They agreed and let him use recently built houses in the village for a cheap rent.

Huang Jiang moved in, taking about thirty apprentices with him. They specialised in producing copy paintings, or xinghua. Clients supplied the image and painters reproduced them by hand, often in large quantities. To increase efficiency, ensure uniformity and raise quality, Huang Jiang applied the principle of division of labour in the production process – apprentices were assigned and trained to paint specific parts of a painting. The production-line model became highly successful and orders poured in from America and Europe through intermediaries in Hong Kong. In 1992, Huang Jiang established his own company and employed over 2,000 workers. Many of his apprentices soon started their own galleries and shops in Dafen, recruiting migrants from Fujian, Jiangxi, Hubei and China’s inner provinces that flooded into Guangdong in search of work.

Sculptural works displayed outside a gallery in Dafen. Image by Art Radar.

Sculptural works displayed outside a gallery in Dafen. Image by Art Radar.

Remaking Dafen

But it was not until the publication of a report in Yangcheng Wanbao (Yangcheng Evening News) in 1997 that the Dafen success story was brought to light. According to local anecdotes, when the news report came out of the Longgang district, the government was taken by pleasant surprise and could not believe that a cultural industry of such potential had been operating in its jurisdiction unnoticed. Inspection tours were immediately arranged and local officials returned excited, yet unsatisfied. The village was deemed dirty, messy and in a dire condition, its building structures rudimentary and its roads unpaved. The government decided that in order to capitalise on its potential, Dafen must be remade and upgraded (xingji).

Reconstruction began in earnest in the year 2000 as old houses were torn down to make space for modern, brightly coloured low-rises designed and arranged to resemble a small European town. In addition to the spatial transformation, the government promoted Dafen by supporting over thirty local artists to travel and advertise their work in South Asia and Turkey in 2002. Dafen was selected as one of the venues of China’s First International Cultural Industry Fair in 2004, and the government injected at least 14 million yuan to dress up the town for the occasion. Many other “coming out” events followed, with participation in a cultural festival in Greater New York (2006), visits to Japan and Korea (2007) and exhibitions in Australia and Russia (2008).

From copying to creating?

The year 2008 was a year of achievements for Dafen and its ardent promoters. The Dafen Art Museum was awarded Best Public Project by the Architectural Record. In November, UNESCO granted Shenzhen the title “City of Design”. The future could not appear rosier, and local artists and officials alike had high hopes for the miracle they had engineered.

The entrance of Dafen where a statue of a giant hand holding a paint brush stands, which has become the symbol of the village. Image by Art Radar.

The entrance to Dafen, where a statue of a giant hand holding a paintbrush stands. It has become the symbol of the village. Image by Art Radar.

In an interview with China Daily, director of Dafen village administrative office Peng Gang didn’t hide his ambitions. “Our aim is to make Dafen the dream place for original artwork by Chinese artists, much on the lines of what Hollywood is to global filmmakers,” he said. “It is the original paintings that will help Dafen gain a foothold in the high-end international art market in the future.”

According to volume one of The Casebook of Cultural Construction (wenhua jianshe anli congshu), of the 5,000 art workers in Dafen, only 102 were registered as original artists (yuancang huajia). Copies and commodity paintings account for at least 70 to 80 percent of Dafen’s output, while original paintings make up only 20 to 30 percent. Many of the apprentices that work on the painting production lines cannot afford to become original artists. Producing original art is simply not lucrative – even original artists with an established presence in Dafen must sell copies to make ends meet. Being a copy artist does not mean that life is easy either. According to an article by Spiegel, copy artists do not have a fixed wage and income can vary between 100 and 300 euros per month.

How do local artists feel about the high expectations that the government has placed on them? What are the side-effects of the local government’s stepping in to remake and market Dafen? Is there a prospect for Dafen to develop into a hub of creativity? The next article in this series featuring our interview with Dafen artist Wang Zeng Chun will answer some of these big questions.


Related Topics: Chinese artists, art in China, art districts

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Dafen Art Village, part I: From copy to creative in Shenzhen? — 9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Loft World | Hallam Stevens

  2. Professional Artist Wanted

    Can you help me find several professional artist who would like to work and vacation in America?


    If you are an artist and can paint, an excellent opportunity exist to vacation in America in exchange for your painting. Your housing will be provided in exchange for your professional painting. All art supplies will be provided to complete your work. While not painting you’ll have plenty of time to do some sightseeing in America. New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC might interest you. There is so much to see and do.

    So please send this ARTIST WANTED request to all qualified artist in your area.

    I have hundreds of original illustrations that need to be painted. They are all originals works and one of my goal is to have an exhibit showcasing the artist paintings in an art museum here in the United States. So please, If you know several talented people who are gifted artist, please put them in contact with me. Your help is greatly appreciated. All details will be given after contact.

    Sincerely, Mark Williams
    4 Cardinal Drive
    Egg Harbor City, NJ 10815th USA
    TEL: 609-880-5114
    EMAIL: linkup2000mark@yahoo.com

  3. Hi, Bailey:

    Do you think it is a good idea to open a shop in Sydney to sell paintings from Dafen? I am thinking about this right now.


    Dennis Huang

  4. Hi I visited Daffen 2 month ago and olked this place a lot. Where can i order the Plastic Sculptuers of the Man & Woman (in red or white or blue ) that are at the entarance of Daffen? what will be the price of it?
    What are the possibilities of the sizes?
    Yael Segev

  5. Thank you, Yael, for the comment. We don’t have an idea of price ourselves, but suggest that you head along to the village and ask around a number of different spaces to see what kinds of prices you are offered. Perhaps some of our readers can help out?

  6. Hello
    Next month i am going to visit China as well as Dafen vilage.
    I am an artist, painter, sculptor, photografer and digital paintings.
    i would like some one to re paint my paintings ,perhaps in a different style, who can help me to do it? What can be the normal price for a painting: 100×100 cm/
    yael segev

  7. Pingback: Find your piece at Da Fen « Chalk and Raddy

  8. I am travelling from Australia and hoping to vist Dafen on July 11. I will be travelling via train from Hong Kong. I note that yours is the largest gallery in Dafen so I assume I won’t have any trouble finding you?

  9. My Name is Bailey O’Malley.
    I am an Australian and the only foriegner to run a gallery in Dafen. My Wife Maggie who is Chinese helps me run this business. I have read many reports on Dafen and been involved in many interviews with news papers , magazines and documentary makers over the past five years for many reasons. The first is I am the only gallery owner that can speak fluent English so that helps when making a story. The other is my gallery is the largest gallery in the villlage of almost 1,000 galleries. And t is clearly run at the highest level.
    I often tell my customers that I have bought and sold more paitings than any other human on the planet. That is not counting the 20,000 paintings a months that are for hotel walls. I mean really nice paintings.
    The market has shifted now and the Chinese are getting richer every day and their taste is expanding in every direction.
    The days of foriegners getting their hands on good cheap paintings are over. The Chinese will buy quality after they are satisified they are getting great value of course. So they take up 98% of all my good works now.
    Keep in mind we have a 5 story building in the center of the village that is full of framed paintings. More high quality paintings in every style and size in one gallery than I have ever seen any where or ever heard any of my customers tell me about. We sell more high quality paintings in one day than most galleries any where in the world would sell in a year.
    This has been the an eye opener for me in so many ways it would take me a month to write what I have seen and learnt since I opened a gallery in Dafen.
    China Can Copy Any One But No One Can Copy China ! That goes for dafen !
    Kind regards Bailey O’Malley from pix2oils.com

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