Dafen Oil Painting Village: The Art Factory of the World | Arts and culture
Reproducing works by famous artists is big business, and for more than 20 years, the oil painting village of Dafen in southern China has been at the center of the global trade in art reproductions.
Known as the ‘Oil Paint Factory of the World’, in its heyday, Dafen produced 60% of all new oil paintings available in the world, although this status has declined somewhat. since the 2008 global financial crisis.
A suburb of Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong Province, Dafen first became involved in oil painting in the late 1980s when Huang Jiang, a painter and businessman from Hong Kong, made the village his home.
Huang brought with him a group of painters and art students who began to reproduce works by famous Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt for the world market.
The paintings were purchased by a range of customers – from retailers, hotels and conference centers to private collectors and gallery owners – and the village quickly turned into a bustling town.
Today, around 8,000 people live in Dafen, including artists, framers, agents and their families.
There is little distinction between home and office, with one room serving as a studio, bedroom, playroom, and pictures hung alongside clothing in outdoor spaces.
Dafen has become a tourist destination for those who want to get their hands on a fake masterpiece or see how art is produced on an industrial scale.
Some workshops even use an assembly line style system, with each artist painting a small portion of a larger piece, such as a tree or an eye, before passing on the painting.
For some, studying and copying the world’s greatest artists is a way out of rural poverty; those who establish successful business connections can hire apprentices and open their own galleries in the village, but the replica industry is by no means safe.
Competition is fierce and Dafen artists sell their works at relatively low prices, often to gallery owners who resell the paintings abroad at a much higher price.
Over the past decade, however, change has swept over Dafen in more ways than one.
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, many residents of Dafen were forced not only to find new clients as Western demand dwindled, but also in some cases to completely change their painting style.
Wealthy domestic buyers were looking for pieces reflecting their own culture, which led to an increase in the production of Chinese flowers and portraits of Dafen’s cultural icons, such as Mao Zedong.
As a result of these changes, sSome artists were made redundant and had to set up studios in the alleys due to rising rents and lack of space.
Development is also a threat to the livelihoods of artists. The local government proposed a plan to capitalize on Dafen’s appeal as a tourist destination by turning the village into an art park – removing many buildings currently occupied by painters.
In May 2017, the Shenzhen government issued a statement citing 148 sites in Dafen as “serious fire hazards.” That summer, a local neighborhood committee sent representatives to eliminate the fire hazard, much to the dismay of residents who saw their workplaces destroyed.
But not all of the changes have been negative. An increasing number of them have started to use the skills they learned from producing replicas to create their own works of art, alongside their copy work.
While Dafen and his artists have successfully adapted to survive a series of global, local and personal challenges, the future of this unique village and its people remains in question.