The Art of Copying: The Artists’ Village of Dafen

In the summer of 1988 a Hong Kong businessman named Huang Jing wandered into a village called Dafen, just outside of what was then the small provincial city of Shenzhen. In the village he found nothing more than a few dilapidated houses. He promptly rented a few very cheaply. When Huang Jing moved in to the houses, Dafen was populated by 300 native born urban villagers and 10,000 migrant workers, who had moved into the newly established Shenzhen special economic zone looking for work. In the 1990s the per capita income of the village of Dafen was less than 200 yuan ($31) annually. With its high crime rate and low level of education, Dafen was considered a problem village. Huang Jing brought 30 artist apprentices from all over China with him. The one thing they had in common was that they were all specialists in producing copies of the paintings of the great masters.

Huang Jing set up a system for his artists based on the principles of division of labor. To produce a copy, individual painters paint specific parts of a painting in production line fashion, similar to the production line system used in the nearby Dongguan factories. Orders for these production line paintings began to pour into Dafen from the United States and Europe through Hong Kong. Huang Jing’s stable of copyists spent their days cranking out paintings to meet the demand.

By 1992 Huang Jing had established his own company with 2,000 workers. Many of his original apprentices started their own shops in Dafen, bringing in their own apprentices, recruiting migrants from Fujian, Jiangxi, Hubei, and China’s inner provinces. Then, in 1997 a story in the Yangcheng Evening News brought Huang Jing’s success to light. Rather than repressing Huang Jing’s activities, as he expected and feared, the Chinese government was delighted with Huang’s entrepreneurial spirit. They dispatched officials to Dafen to write a report on the grassroots art industry. When the officials arrived, they were horrified when they saw the infrastructure of Dafen for themselves. They decided that the village needed a facelift, and they provided the capital to pay for it. In 2000 the reconstruction of Dafen began. The old village houses were torn down and replaced with brightly painted low rises designed to resemble a European town. Thirty artists from Dafen were selected and sent to advertise the artists’ village in Southern Asia and Turkey. In 2004 the Chinese government invested 14 million yuan (roughly two million US dollars) to dress up Dafen as the centerpiece of China’s first International Cultural Industries Fair. They provided Dafen with an iconic identifying symbol, a bronze statue of a giant hand holding a calligraphy brush. In 2008 UNESCO recognized Dafen as a “city of design.”

Peng Geng, director of the Dafen Village Administration Office, is quoted as having said: “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.” I found it interesting that Peng Geng used the words “original artwork” to describe what Dafen artists do. In reality, Dafen artists specialize in production line artwork. According to the “Casebook of Cultural Construction” (Wenhua jianshe anli congshu) copies and commodities paintings account for 70 to 80 percent of Dafen’s output, while original paintings make up only 20 to 30 percent. Original art is not lucrative. Dafen artists must produce copies in order to earn a living.

Today, housing over 800 galleries and workshops, and home to 5,000 artists, as well as the prestigious 17,000 meter Dafen Art Musuem, the largest village level art museum in China, Dafen commands one third of the global commodity of trade in oil painting and has a trade volume of 430 million yuan ($68,577,264).

On a weekend in early March I decide to cross the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to spend a day in Dafen to see for myself what this production line art is all about. I take a taxi to Dafen from the Best Western Hotel in Lo Wu, where I've booked a room for the night, and where, according to a commemorative plaque in the lobby, among other notable dignitaries from North Korea and the People’s Republic of China, Richard Nixon stayed on April 4, 1993.

A twenty minute breakneck taxi ride without seat belts speeds me through the modern, clean, well-planned city center of Shenzhen as a radio talk show blares in Mandarin with call-ins breaking inexplicably into song to the feigned delight of the show’s hosts.

Shenzhen is a major metropolis that has grown up around a very small traditional city. It is an architect’s wonderland; construction here has taken place at an unprecedented pace. In the midst of this modernity, however, one can still see the relics of an older, poorer, China. From my taxi window I watch a middle aged man negotiate his way through traffic on a rickety bicycle with an old-school bulky computer monitor strapped to the back. Vendors sell fruits and vegetables from stands alongside the roads.

A Jaguar drives past my taxi, and then a Mercedes. What? Then I remember: It’s the money from the Shenzhen factories, of course. We’ve outsourced our manufacturing to China, and China raised taxes on imports while reducing taxes on exports. We in the United States are greedy for cheap Chinese consumer products. China is now reaping its economic rewards, and we are absorbing our losses.

My taxi pulls over and I step out at the Dafen landmark—a large bronze fist holding a Chinese calligraphy brush. With that landmark in full view of the main thoroughfare, there is no way anyone could miss the entrance to China’s most profitable artists’ village. I pay the taxi driver 34 yuan ($5.45) and head into the maze of narrow streets that make up the artists’ village.

Dafen is an art lover’s mecca. Typical narrow traditional brick Chinese village houses are home to gallery after gallery, shop after shop, some bursting at the seams with copies of paintings by the old masters, some filled with traditional Chinese landscape paintings, some with wacky geometric paintings or other interesting originals, and others with social realist paintings of China’s communist elite or some variety of Chinese traditional folk arts. The quality of the artwork is mixed. Here quantity over quality is the name of the game. Brilliance hangs on a gallery wall beside kitsch, each taking up equal space. It is up to the viewer to decide which is which.

The Dafen art village turns the entire concept of fine arts on its head. Although some galleries do actually sell original paintings, these artists’ originals are made into countless reproductions. It's as though an artist, having worked his or her way into an exciting concept, is then obligated to reproduce that moment countless times in order to turn a profit. Many galleries sell mass produced kitsch in appalling color combinations. Some shops actually advertise themselves as specializing in hotel room art, catering to that very specific clientele looking for the bland landscapes and non-offending flower paintings one typically sees on the wall of a Best Western or a Holiday Inn. Come to think of it, I did notice that the artwork on the walls of my room at the Best Western was actually not that bad—for hotel room art. Without a doubt the prints on my walls must have come from Dafen. Although located within the metropolis of Shenzhen, the Dafen art village still feels very much like a village. Strolling through Dafen’s narrow streets, where life in this subtropical climate is lived mainly outdoors, I am reminded of traditional Chinese villages. Only the chickens rooting around underfoot are missing.

I wander into one gallery where three little smiling girls watch TV, giggling, jostling each other, while their mother prepares tea in the traditional Chinese manner on a coffee table on the other side of the room. On the crowded walls large paintings depicting significant historical and political moments in the People’s Republic of China compete with communist symbolism in glaring red glory hang side by side with copies of Vermeers and Rembrants. The juxtaposition is staggering. The way in which these copies are hung randomly together, regardless of period, style, culture, or even politics, strikes me as accidental postmodernism. As I wander through the village’s narrow side streets, this postmodern dissonance of form, culture, civilization, is repeated in gallery after gallery and shop after shop.

It is a warm day and everywhere in the streets and open plazas children play. They come spilling out of the galleries, chattering away to one another, running back inside periodically to check in with a mother, who usually is held hostage indoors, waiting for customers to enter the gallery. Once a customer enters, saleswomen pounce on them with that charismatic Chinese eagerness to make a sale. A cute little girl, about four, dressed in a pretty pink cotton dress, runs out of a gallery and squats on the street outside the gallery and urinates. A little boy, also around four or five, sees her from inside the gallery next door, runs outside, and impatiently chatters away at her, pointing at a scooter parked beside the gallery, inviting her to play. In another shop a woman slurps noodles from a bowl while keeping one eye on a television suspended from the ceiling and the other eye on the door. She squats on her haunches, ready to pounce on the next customer who comes in through the door.

In art supply shops vendors sell Chinese brushes and paints, some quite cheaply. Others hawk Chinese antiques, faux Ming dynasty vases, plates, tea sets. Other galleries specialize in traditional Chinese arts. In the alleyways between streets artists hang large canvases on the brick walls and paint reproductions of classical Chinese landscapes. I watch as one young man squints at a reproduction of a painting by one of the Chinese great masters on his cell phone screen. He dabs at the canvas, paints in a mountain or a tree, then refers back to the image on his phone.

Beside the man painting from this cell phone, another artist is mechanically dotting in trees on the mountains he’d already finished painting. I cannot help but wonder if this profit-oriented mass produced method of painting would not have horrified the great Chinese masters of ancient times, who worked from a place of spirituality and meditation and closeness with the natural world. There is no system of philosophy and poetry surrounding these street knock offs, and you feel it immediately when you look at the reproductions. You simply can feel that they are fakes—at least I can. These reproductions are produced without the emotional process a true artist goes through creating an image.

I remember an Al Jazeera news report I’d seen recently about a museum in London that had put together a show combining original works of art with copies of classic paintings produced in Dafen. Viewers had to guess which paintings were originals and which were fakes. Perhaps, in technical terms, only an art critic with a well trained eye, or an artist with a well-trained hand, could definitively tell the difference in a sterile museum context where all the paintings hang on the same neutral white walls. However, as a serial viewer of art, and as one who does not go a week without looking closely at paintings and prints, whether in a gallery or a museum, and as the daughter of a painter, and the grand niece of the American classic painter, Will Barnet, I would like to put forth the idea that there is a spiritual quality to art that is produced with emotional focus. That focus resonates inside the viewer. It is a different feeling than the one you get when viewing a copy knocked off quickly, even a skillfully executed copy. It takes a certain sensitivity to recognize, but it is there. There is a process that takes place when one paints, a sort of meditation, a sustained focus, a communication with the universe that shapes the evolution of a painting. When that process is absent, when one merely copies, we feel it when we gaze at the painting, even if we are not quite sure what we are feeling. In the end, when an artist copies an already established work of art, that artist takes no risk, and the thrill of the creative process lies in the risk. It lies in knowing how far to go and when to stop. When the artists does not live through this process, we feel it.

Or am I a hopeless idealist?

Or are all my thoughts about the process of creativity already something of the past in our market driven fast world?

Am I missing something?

Has the train moved on and I'm not on it?

I keep walking, deeper into the artists' village. Western-style coffee shops are tucked between galleries, some with stacks piled high to the ceilings of reproductions of the work of the great masters painted onto canvases. I decide to stop at the Zgxs café to cool my heels and write down some notes. The décor consists of roughhewn tables and chairs with brick walls whitewashed beige. In boxes built into the window frames there is an eclectic selection of Chinese and Western antiques and knick-knacks. The floors are a combination of stone and cement. The café is decorated unilaterally in earth tones; even the artwork hanging on the walls matches. I love it. I am sensitive to my environment, and this environment speaks to me.

The coffee on the menu ranges from Yirgacheffe, “an Ethiopian blend known for its sweet flavor” to Yunnan, “Made in China, you should try it.” Clearly, the owners and creators of this café know their coffees, and their clientele. I page to the back of the menu and find biographies of the innovators of the Zgxs Art Café: Zhenggang Xiong

Graduated from Hubel Institute of Fine Arts, mastered the skill of painting at publicity work and formed his unique angle in painting creation. Mr. Xiong came to Dafen at 2002, and then developed an unconventional style by using the most common and usual materials, which inspired many Dafen artists. In all his sleepless process of art creation, coffee became Mr. Xiong’s perfect companion. In Zgxs coffee gallery, Mr. Xiong presents his favorites to you, coffee and paintings. The Lotus is a representation piece of Mr. Xiong’s early work. It has been mass-produced for more than hundreds of thousands times.

I find it interesting to note that the mark of quality of a work of art in the context of the Dafen artists’ community is not its originality and creativity, its unique one of a kind quality, but rather the number of times the art work has been mass produced. Whereas in the West an art dealer will collect works for their originality, and the client will buy them in order to possess and invest in something that is unique, one of a kind, in Dafen apparently the mark of success is how many copies of the painting have been made and subsequently sold. No such thing as the starving artist living for his creative ideals in Dafen.

Or is there?

I turn the page to the biography of the coffee gallery’s co-founder, Mr. Hui Xiong. At least Mr. Hui did not have any mass produced artwork to boast of at the end of his artist’s statement.

Studied in Rhode Island School of Design in 2009, earned his Master’s in Communication in Northeastern University, concentrated in interactive design. In love with typography, well versed in the art and technique of arranging type, type design, and modifying type glyphs. He gains typography inspiration by grabbing colors, textures from paintings and photographs, and then creates nice coherent themes.

Having invigorated myself with a cup of strong coffee, I move on to view the Dafen Art Museum a few blocks away. At the back of a large modern square, which is populated with happy children flying across it on scooters, I find the museum. Inside the Dafen Art Museum there is a show on of “young and middle aged painters.” Idyllic, nostalgic, Chinese Norman Rockwellesque quaint rural scenes contrast with paintings gloriously depicting the vast construction sites of Chinese-style breakneck modernization. Images of vast new global cities and reinterpretations of social realism are other popular subjects. Other paintings depict the typical scenes and postures of social realism; however, with a touch of irony. For example, a group of proud Chinese workers, dressed in work-worn grubby coveralls, gaze out at the viewer with a sardonic look. A painting of an urban landscape of smokestacks producing a pink glow painted from the point of view of a car’s dashboard hangs on the opposite wall.

As I walk through gallery after gallery of the Dafen Art Museum, I find I can divide the paintings into four categories: 1) Sentimental rural scenes expressing a nostalgia for a simplified, idealistic rural life, usually depicting mostly women, but also men, in traditional folk costume. Often they are playing musical instruments or have bamboo cages of chickens at their feet. 2) Scenes painted on a grand scale reflecting the rapidity of urban growth in China. There is a grandiosity to these paintings and an embedded sense of pride and accomplishment. These paintings typically show massive construction sites or workers and machinery engaged in construction. There is a fetishizing of the construction site in these paintings. 3) Scenes reflecting a global society happily living the high life in China’s megacities. These paintings include stylized paintings of China’s bullet trains and other urban sources of pride. 4) Traditional communist social realist paintings with an ironic twist. For example, one large canvas depicts a construction worker taking a break on a massive construction site, gazing out at the viewer with a sardonic sneer, holding an orange popsicle in his grubby work-worn hand.

I decide to take a short break from my perusal of art to eat a quick dinner. Since there is nothing but coffee shops inside the artists’ village (as though the artists live on coffee alone), I venture out onto the main street outside of the village to find an eatery. This proves to be easier said than done. After wandering up and down the main commercial street, and after having to leave two small restaurants after being seated because I simply could not make myself understood, even when using the “point at the picture” technique of ordering, I finally settle into a small restaurant where I manage to order a plate of beef and mixed vegetables and rice. The rice and the vegetables are not brought out to me at the same time. When I try to communicate that I would like my rice with my vegetables, the well-meaning waitress glibly presents me with a fork and knife. Apparently, she assumes that I am trying to tell her that I am incapable of eating with chopsticks. I am amused at how once again my blond hair has made me the object of yet another popular stereotype—the Westerner who is too clumsy to master eating her food with chopsticks! As a matter of fact, my Japanese sister-in-law taught me how to eat with chopsticks and often praises me on my “good chopsticks manners.”

The idea of expecting to be able to walk into a restaurant and be able to communicate in even the most basic English, even in model tourist-oriented westernized cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai or Beijing is akin to walking into a mom and pop grocery store in the middle of the potato fields of Idaho or Hatchet-in-the-Stump, Montana, and asking for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread in Chinese and expecting to be understood.

Like Russia, like the United States, China is an exclusively monolingual country. The Chinese do not need to learn English because one day, perhaps even very soon, we will all be learning Chinese. Frustrated by my inability to order a simple bowl of rice in a restaurant, I consider that our work with the Chinese students in international schools may be more important than I’d initially imagined. Not only are we training the Chinese students to be able to communicate, live, and work in a western environment, but we are creating a bridge of communication for ourselves. When we are completely economically marginalized in the United States as our government’s policies continue to deteriorate the middle class, at least we will have the solace that there will be some economically superior Chinese out there who can understand us. Having glimpsed the unstoppable ambition and work ethic of the Chinese during my two years in Hong Kong, I have no doubt that the prediction that China will become the next world power will come to pass very soon.

Having managed to order and eat my dinner, I set out to buy inexpensive art supplies. I dream about going home and producing a few paintings myself. Of course, my paltry attempts at self-expression will remain entirely private. I will amuse myself with my paints much in the way that a child amuses themselves with a box of crayons. Nothing I could ever produce could match up with the technical expertise of the output I saw today in Dafen. The sheer number of paintings produced here is humbling.

In a small crowded shop on a narrow side street I select my art supplies and pay for them. The sun is setting, and the shops and galleries are shutting down for the night. I visit a few last galleries along the way to the main road. In one gallery I find myself gazing at a reproduction of Van Gogh’s sunflower painting. Even the thickness of the paint matches Van Gogh’s characteristic signature style of thickly layered textured paint. The painting I am looking at is framed, but on the floor there is a stack of identical sunflower paintings, selling for a lesser price than the framed painting. Another wall is covered with small framed paintings that seem to be the same artist’s original work. I notice a whimsical painting of yellow flowers that invokes Van Gogh’s style, but which is, yes, amazingly, not a knock off, but an original painting, an example of creative expression. Although I certainly do not know this for certain, I indulge myself in an imaginary scenario: A Dafen artist, weary after a day of painting copies of Van Gogh flower paintings, picks up a small canvas, and, inspired by Van Gogh’s style, experiments with his/her own flower painting.

I ask the vendor the price of the small flower painting. The vendor wants 90 yuan ($14). I barter the price down to 70 yuan ($12). Reluctantly, the vendor agrees. Night is falling and it is time to close up shop. I tuck the painting under my arm and step out into the dark night, the glow of the bright yellow flowers lighting my way.

From: Digging a Hole to China: A Memoir on Teaching and Traveling. Available on Amazon.com.

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