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China: Hidden village of Dafen produces 60% of world's oil paintings

Just outside of Shenzhen (深圳) is a village you've probably never heard of: Dafen (大芬). It has recently swelled from a mere 300 residents to a bustling artist colony of over 8000 full-time artists who produce an incredible 60% of the world's oil paintings. As blogger Flies among Clouds (凌云飞天) puts it:

稍稍远离繁华的街区,隐藏着另一颗文化宝石——大芬油画村。这里聚集着成百上千的艺术家,他们可以为你绘出任何一张脸。美联储前主席艾伦·格林斯潘的画像?孙女的全身像?都没有问题,他们会画好给你寄过去。当然,如果你要寻找真正的艺术,这里也有许多原创画家开设的店铺,其中不难找到优秀的作品。

Just a little way beyond the bustling city streets lies a hidden cultural treasure – Dafen Art Village. There are hundreds of artists who gather here who can paint anything at all. Former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan? A full-body portrait of a girl? No problem, they can paint anything for you. Not only that, if you're looking for original art you can find numerous shops here with excellent work.

Rumour vs. Reality

While international attention has focused on the fact that a large portion of Dafen's profitability comes from reproducing classic European masterpieces (Chinese law states anything over 50 years old is not protected by copyright), the presentation that Dafen's artists simply mechanically reproduce foreign art seems to be a somewhat misleading story, says He Wei La (何谓落):

十四号的下午5点左右,将我哥拖起来,去完成我们来深圳的使命,去传说中的大芬村!

大芬村,我来了!进入村子后发现和传说中的有很大的差异,听说的是产业化生产的行画,而进入大芬村后眼睛中轰炸的都是一些很行的油画,打眼一看,很好看,…还看到了一些原创性很强的画,…我们才开始真正的大芬之旅,卡里的钱都用了买油画了,还从信用卡中透了一些出来,基本上几个风格的画都选了一两张,票票花光了,手上多了很多负担,扛着好几卷油画。

It's the 14th, 5 in the afternoon more or less, gonna drag my brother, go to the whole reason we came to Shenzhen, go to the legendary Dafen Village!

Dafen Village, I'm here! Entering the village I discovered there's a big difference from the rumours, I heard it's kind of a factorized production line, but when I entered Dafen village my eyes were bombed with good paintings, took one look, really nice paintings, …also saw some really strong original works, …now we started to really visit Dafen, used all the money on our card to buy paintings, even dipped into our credit card a little, basically two of each kind of painting, spent all our money, our hands were full carrying a whole bunch of oil paintings.

Eastern Culture Western Power (文东武西) offers both useful facts and colorful pictures of the district as well:

走进大芬村,简直是置身于艺术的殿堂,到处都是画廊,满眼尽是画布——这里是中国油画的集散地。

To walk into Dafen Village is to simply place one's self in a temple of art, art galleries are everywhere, canvasses completely fill one's eyes – this is China's oil painting hub.

Singing the praises of Dafen

One blogger, Pan Bolan descendant of the Gold Letter Generation (潘伯澜后裔金子辈) has even written a song about Dafen Village and is looking for support for it:

小山村里, 有着诗情画意, 世界的油画多产自这里。

小山村里,美名传万里,这里的油画销往世界世界各地。

这里是美丽的大芬村,村头的雕塑是画笔,油画创奇迹。

这里是美丽的大芬村,村头的雕塑是画笔,美名传万里,。

In a small mountain village, there's a special feeling in the meaning of a picture, most of the world's oil paintings come from here.

In a small mountain village, its reputation spreads for thousands of miles, paintings from here spread all over the world.

Here is beautiful Dafen Village, at the village entrance is a statue of a paint brush, oil painting creates a miracle.

Here is beautiful Dafen Village, at the village entrance is a statue of a paint brush, its reputation spreads for thousands of miles.

Criticism from Artists

While Dafen has turned into a Chinese Mecca for art and artists, there is a large market for mass produced cheap knock-offs of well-known masterpieces which is helping to drive Dafen's success. Artist and blogger Teacher Wang (王老师) writes:

眼下政府正大力扶植大芬这个油画产业,并把大芬定位全国第一个油画产业基地。无疑大芬从80年代末到现在走了十几年的历史,有过她辉煌的历史。也造就了一个历史神话。但是大芬你能满足过去的辉煌光圈吗? 你还在沾沾自喜你的历史?你有没有看到大芬的整体艺术水平跟其它城市,北京、上海、重庆等地的画家村进行比较,差距有多大。再跟欧美国家的艺术家的作品进行比较差距吗?

Now the government is directly vigorously supporting Dafen's oil painting industry, securing its position as the country's number one oil painting base. No doubt that since the 80's Dafen has achieved a splendid history in just a few decades. Even created an historical fairy tale. But Dafen, can you really satisfy the level of previous splendor? Are you still self-satisfied with history? Have you seen that your over-all level of art compared with other cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, those kinds of artist communities is relatively lacking by quite a bit? Also compared to European and American art production there's a disparity gap?

Something for all ages

Despite these professional criticisms from a working artist, the attraction for the general public comes in all ages, as this blogger for the Sunny Family (阳光家庭) children's group points out:

海悦阳光家庭综合服务中心社工按期为社区儿童举行了参观大芬美术馆的户外活动…通过“看画说话”的形式,也让小朋友体会到不一样的感受,增加了他们的学习兴趣;通过观看展览的画、以及社工的讲解,也让小朋友的视野得到了增长。

Happy Ocean Sunny Family Comprehensive Service Center Social Worker's held a community childrens outdoor activity tour of the Dafen art galleries…through a “look at art and converse” format, it allows the children to get to know different feelings, increases their interest in study; through viewing displays of art, as well as explanations from social workers, it also increases the childrens horizons.

A growing future

Certainly Dafen has made its name and the majority of its money by becoming famous for affordable reproductions of famous works produced in a production-line manner, but as its reputation grows – and with that reputation interest from the art community – so to does its ability to produce creative and original art. A perfect example of this, from blogger Looking after Land under Heaven, is the Dafen Lisa (大芬丽莎), a giant collective mural of the “Mona Lisa” composed of 999 different sized tiles produced by 500 of Dafen's well-known artists.

What's next?

While the world concentrates on GDP, export volume, military increases, home prices, banking, mutual funds and the like…is one of China's quietest revolutions surging forward in a small village on the outskirts of Shenzhen, taking on and taking over world markets? Will we someday speak of Paris, Milan, New York, Berlin and…Dafen?

China's art and cultural scenes are quitely advancing as rapidly as the tech and business sectors and producing a staggering amount of art with those advances. For those who've never heard of Dafen, now's the time to find out.

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