Reproducing works by famous artists is big business, and for more than 20 years, Dafen oil painting village in southern China has been at the centre of the global trade in art reproductions.
Known as the “world’s oil painting factory”, in its heyday Dafen produced 60 percent of all new oil paintings available worldwide, though this status has declined somewhat since the 2008 global financial crisis.
A suburb of Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province, Dafen became associated with oil painting in the late 1980s when Huang Jiang, a painter and businessman from Hong Kong, took up residence in the village.
Huang brought with him a band of painters and art students who began reproducing works by famous Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt for the global market.
The paintings were purchased by a range of clients – from retailers, hotels and conference centres to private collectors and gallery owners – and the village soon turned into a bustling city.
Today, around 8,000 people live in Dafen, including artists, frame makers, agents, and their families.
There is little distinction between home and the office, with one room serving as a studio, bedroom, playroom and paintings hung up next to clothes in outdoor spaces.
Dafen has become a tourist destination for those eager to get their hands on a mock-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 section of a larger piece, such as a tree or an eye, before passing the painting on.
For some, studying and copying the world’s greatest artists is a way out of rural poverty; those who make successful business links are able to take on apprentices and open their own galleries in the village, but the replica industry is by no means secure.
Competition is fierce and artists in Dafen sell their work for relatively low prices, often to gallery owners who resell the paintings abroad at a much higher price.
In the last decade, however, change has been sweeping through Dafen in more ways than one.
When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, many in Dafen were forced to not only find new clients as Western demand declined but also, in some cases, to completely change their style of painting.
Wealthy domestic buyers sought pieces that reflected their own culture, prompting an increase in Dafen’s production of Chinese flowers and portraits of cultural icons, such as Mao Zedong.
In the wake of these changes, some artists were laid off and had to set up studios in alleyways due to increasing rent and a lack of space.
Development also poses a threat to artists’ livelihoods. Local government have proposed a plan to capitalise on Dafen’s appeal as a tourist destination by turning the village into an art park – removing many buildings currently occupied by painters in the process.
In May 2017, the Shenzhen government issued a statement citing 148 sites in Dafen as “severe fire hazards”. That summer, a local neighbourhood committee sent representatives to clear the fire safety hazards, much to the dismay of residents who saw their workplaces destroyed.
But not all change has been negative. An increasing number have begun using the skills they’ve learned from producing replicas to make their own artwork, alongside their copy work.
While Dafen and its artists have successfully adapted to survive a raft of global, local and personal challenges, the future of this unique village and its inhabitants remains in question.