In 2010, ARTINFO described Shenzhen’s “booming art scene”, and attributed the new phenomenon to the local government’s strategic development of the Dafen Art Village. However, what are established local artists saying about the village’s climate for original art?

Wang Zeng Chun, an original artist and longtime resident of Shenzhen's Dafen copy-art village, speaks with Art Radar in his gallery. Image by Art Radar.

There has been incredible speculation on Shenzhen’s Dafen Art Village and its prospects for producing and supporting original contemporary artists. Art Radar investigated the creative community in the village by speaking with Wang Zeng Chun, a prolific original artist who has operated from Dafen for nineteen years.

In an exclusive interview with Art Radar, Wang Zeng Chun described a frustrating art scene in Shenzhen, with many original artists abandoning the Dafen village after the government redeveloped the district. Ironically, the local government project that was aimed at supporting the art community, has inadvertently created a more financially hostile environment for artists. In fact, over the past seven years the village has experienced an astronomical tenfold increase in rental costs for studio and gallery space. Chun now estimates the original art community in Dafen at a mere thirty to fifty artists, while over five thousand copy artists operate from the village.

Read on for insight into the Dafen Oil Painting Village from an original artist who has worked in the community for almost two decades.

Where were you born, and where did you train as an artist?

I am from Northern China, and I worked at Xu Yi Academy of Painting in Huanggang town, Longgang district, because [back] then Dafen had not yet become an oil painting village.

When did you arrive in Shenzhen?

In 1991, nineteen years ago. I am first-generation Shenzhen. I have been operating from Dafen Village [for] almost twenty years.

Wow, so you have seen a lot of changes here. What originally brought you to Shenzhen?

At the beginning of the reform, Guangdong was considered to have very good prospects, that is why I came. I didn’t think too much about it, and it has evolved into this.

How have you changed as an artist over the past nineteen years?

Shenzhen hasn’t developed as I thought it would, and prospects are not as good as I thought they would be. It hasn’t gone as well as I’d hoped.

Entrance to Dafen Art Village. Image by Art Radar.

So you anticipated a more vibrant creative community?

Exactly, with more prospects and better development of contemporary art. However, there wasn’t [any development]. The change has been very slow.

Have you ever worked as a copy artist?

Yes. It has only been [in] the past few years that I could devote more time to original creation.

An artist paints in the streets of the Dafen Art Village in Shenzhen. Image by Art Radar.

What made you change from being a copy artist to creating original artworks?

Many of the people coming [to work at Dafen] want to create their own work, but they [also] have to … pay for their living expenses and it is more lucrative to create copy art. So everyone needs to start out as a copy artist, and if they can establish themselves as a creative artist, they do not need to make as many copy works.

Is it difficult for artists to make that change?

Art workers in Dafen can be divided into two main groups, one focusing on copying art works, another focusing on creative, original art. On developing creative art, I personally think that its development must be built upon a certain economic foundation. At the moment, artists in Dafen are forced to look to the market and work around its demands in order to survive and, as a result, the creative art of Dafen also revolves around the market and not the other way round. Creative art should lead and instruct the market. That’s why creative art is not truly developing here….

However, of the artists who come to Dafen, less than ten percent have true creative ability. It is difficult for people without genuine inspiration to make the switch to create original works. The Dafen Village is too commodified. It started as a venture to mass-produce paintings for hotels. So, the village attracts people who are more interested in just doing a job. Not many with creative ability would choose to come to Dafen, because it is not even as well-developed as Beijing’s 7-9-8 Art District.

Is there a creative community in Shenzhen besides the Dafen Art Village?

No. Well, there is a small, marginalised community, but not any established presence. All of the very talented artists are hired by the government, and they just work at home. So they don’t congregate in the community.… The artists who establish themselves work at home with a government commission.… Therefore, good original artists don’t have a physical presence in any type of community.

So, are the government-commissioned artists represented by galleries? What happens to their work?

Sometimes it can be found in galleries. Some of their art can be found in Dafen.

As an original artist in a copy village, are you concerned your paintings could be copied?

Yes. We are trying very hard to fight against the local culture of pirated copies, so we deliberately make work that is very hard to imitate.

Original artwork by Wang Zeng Chun, with difficult-to-imitate painting techniques. Image by Art Radar.

How do you create your unique painting technique?

It is very expressive. I do not want to lend to it any pre-conceived categorisation. I think it is like being a good author; … you write good stories naturally, without really thinking about it.

How many original artists do you estimate operate out of Dafen?

Not many. Only about thirty to fifty in a village of about five or six thousand copy artists.

Do you see any particular benefits or drawbacks for the original artists in Dafen?

There is a problem, not only with living and working in Dafen, but also with the entire cultural industry. You need to have capital, so even the greatest artists must always think about the commercial value of their paintings. This is not just a Chinese problem or a Dafen problem, this is a problem with the entire world: that art is something that is commodified and sold. So, that is the challenge, but it is not particular to working in Dafen. Anywhere else in China would be the same.

The main difficulty in working … from Dafen is paying rent. Many original artists cannot afford to pay [it]. Also, the entire industry is [made up mostly of] copy artists, so you must rise above them.

How much is rent for a general studio and gallery space?

As recently as just seven years ago, rent cost about RMB500 per store per month. Now, it is RMB5,000, so there has been a tenfold increase in rent in seven years. Also, it is now necessary to pay an additional up-front ‘transfer fee’ ranging from RMB50,000 to 100,000 to officially transfer renting rights to a new renter.

Basically, the government became involved and developed the place, so the rent increased a lot. Before, it was just a simple village. Now, it is nicer and redeveloped, and rent is higher…, so the price of being famous is that rent is more expensive.

 How else has Dafen changed since you arrived?

The tallest building used to be only two to three stories high, now there are high-rises. On the outside, the village looks very glamorous,… like business is going well. However, many are struggling to pay rent. The village has relied upon the export industry, and the European and American economies have not done well in recent years. The export industry is now much harder.

However, government officials still come to look at the place, because they are still interested in further development. The municipal and district government is currently involved in remaking the whole place. Meanwhile, the original villagers still own the land, and have become very rich from collecting the artists’ rent. The people who used to live in Dafen have profited a lot from the development of Dafen into such a lucrative business.

What do you see for the further development of Dafen? Can it become an important space for original and contemporary art, or will it continue to be a copy village?

Many of the original artists in Dafen want to leave, especially the most talented ones. There are not considered to be good prospects here, and there is opportunity in the North. It is likely because the industry here is export-based, and exports are not going very well…. The original artists here are considering Beijing and Shanghai, depending upon the type of artwork they do and where they think they can prosper.

A replica Yue Minjun painting is offered for sale amongst impressionist and decorative art works. Image by Art Radar.

And what about you? Are you committed to staying in Shenzhen?

I will probably leave…. I will go home to the North. I came [to Shenzhen] because I thought there were good opportunities [here], but since there aren’t … what is the point of staying?

So you don’t find the environment of Dafen to be supportive of original art?

No, not really.

What do you think of Hong Kong’s extensive development of its arts and cultural infrastructure?

I don’t really know too much about Hong Kong, but it probably has better prospects for art than Shenzhen. There is more respect for copyright and less corruption in Hong Kong, although I don’t really know of any influential Hong Kong artists.

Which artists do you admire?

Many Chinese artists in Beijing. There are two groups of artists working in China right now; one group creates conceptual art, like we always see…. Those don’t really require extensive skills. However, there is another more interesting group of painters that are very good at the skilful application of paint. Their paintings are based upon real artistic skill, and not just concepts.

And what do you think about the Chinese artists on the international auction market?

The artists who have managed to get onto the international art market … actually have a strong team of supporters who finance and package their work. As an individual artist, I do not have this support system behind me.

How do you promote your own artwork?

I do not need to do a lot of advertising because I have been here for almost twenty years. My customers are loyal and come regularly to make art purchases.

Who are your customers?

There are many personalities. There are government officials who buy my art, and foreigners come in to buy paintings. I have customers from all over the world. Some are regular, but others just happen to come in, like a painting, and buy it.

Do you take commissions?

 Yes, always. All the time.

What are your future plans? Any particular artworks, exhibitions, or future challenges?

In the next two to three years I would like to hold an exhibition, but my paintings sell so quickly that I don’t keep enough work in stock to exhibit. However, status-wise, I know it is better to have exhibition experience.

Also, if I had the ability, I would like to migrate to Canada. It’s not easy living in China, not only as an artist, but in general. So many things in China are not reliable, fake milk products, for instance. Many of the most talented Chinese people are choosing to migrate overseas, if they have the ability. If China does not improve, the most talented and capable people will leave.

Why don’t you increase your prices so the artworks don’t sell so quickly?

Many of my customers are very loyal, so I don’t want to raise prices for them.

Despite multiple offers from buyers, Wang Zeng Chun cannot part with this beloved painting. Image by Art Radar.

Do you have a favourite artwork in the gallery here today?

The artwork present in the gallery today is representative of my current stage of experimentation; if you come [back in] six months, all the paintings will be completely different, because I will progress and innovate different styles. These are reflective of my current stage, so it is very hard to pick a favourite. I have different painting styles at different times, [my work is] always evolving….


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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