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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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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