Village known for exporting replicas of van Gogh, Dali repaints itself as original brand

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/11 19:13:40

Guangdong village drawn away from disaster by rising domestic demand for paintings

○ Shenzhen's Dafen village, the world's leading replica oil painting producer, is trying to capture the domestic market with fresh art

○ The village's struggle mirrors the transition that much of the Chinese economy is undergoing - from being more labor-intensive to driven by innovation

A sign stands at the entrance of Dafen village. Photo: CFP

A family runs an oil painting shop in Dafen. Photo: CFP

Dafen, a village just outside Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province won international fame in the late 1990s when it produced a significant chunk of the world's oil paintings. The painters and migrant workers based in the village pumped out huge numbers of replicas of the works of European masters such as van Gogh, Dali and da Vinci. Up to 80 percent of their artworks went to the export market, mainly Europe and America.

"But our 'fame' was a double-edged sword as Dafen became a byword for cheap copies among outsiders and even artists living in Shenzhen scorned Dafen," Yu Sheng, executive vice president of the Dafen Fine Art Industry Association, told the Global Times.

Exports dropped sharply after the global financial crisis began in 2008 and since then Dafen's thousands of painters and hundreds of galleries have shifted their focus to the domestic market.

"We have also realized that we must produce originals," said Wu Ruiqiu, a painter-turned-art zone planner who was president of the Dafen Fine Art Industry Association between 2006 and 2012.

Replicas not a way out

"As more and more Chinese have become sufficiently fed and clothed, installing televisions and air conditioners in their homes, they have started to want to satisfy their need for art and beauty," Wu said.

Dong, an educator in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province has hung nine paintings in his home, including several replicas of masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).

"I like van Gogh's Sunflowers and The Harvest most. Their presence helps make my family and I feel pleased and hopeful," Dong told the Global Times.

He recalls that when he was a child, his parents would paste pictures on the walls during Spring Festival, usually of chubby babies, fish and flowers, a Chinese tradition that was thought to bring happiness, prosperity and good luck for the new year.

But now the tradition is fading. Instead, urban professionals such as Dong like to hang oil paintings which can express a greater degree of aesthetic sophistication.

Domestic orders surpassed foreign ones in 2012, Wu recalled. Dafen's art output was worth 4.1 billion yuan ($602 million) last year and around 70 percent of sales were domestic.

 "Domestic demand for oil paintings is rising and so is the level of quality demanded by customers," said Zhao Xiaoyong, who has painted more than 100,000 copies of van Gogh's artworks over the past 20 years and has been dubbed "China's van Gogh."

Zhao, who has a gallery in Ningbo, told the Global Times that many clients like the abstract and impressionist art produced in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Due to a general lack of concern with copyright, unlicensed knockoffs were prevalent at the beginning of Dafen's transition, recalled Yu.

"Before, Dafen mainly produced works demanded by foreign clients and replicating works of artists who died at least 50 years ago, whose copyright were invalid," he explained.

But as they started to focus more on the Chinese market, some galleries in Dafen started to make unauthorized replicas of famous works by modern Chinese artists, Yu said.

Dafen's workshops have now learned to get the original painter's permission if their copyright is still valid, Wu said. His own company once produced and sold replicas of modern works without permission, until it received a copyright infringement notice in 2006 which meant the company had to pay to have several thousand pieces that had already been transported to Europe destroyed.

Painters like Zhao say replicas will not sustain the Chinese art industry in the long run and that China needs to produce more great artists of its own.

Zhao, from a rural part of Shaoyang, Hunan Province, was an apprentice in Dafen. His first contact with oil painting was when he came to the village in 1996.

"I have been painting for 20 years, but my works can't sell for a good price," he said. "The value of replicas cannot rise too high." One of his one-to-one replicas of van Gogh's works can be sold for up to 10,000 yuan.

But the replicas of the Dutch master's works made on a production line in Dafen are much cheaper.

Wu believes that the replica market is building the foundation of art appreciation among the Chinese public.

"The artists sell their copyrights, the galleries buy the copyrights, produce replicas and sell them, so art enters tens of thousands of households," commented Wu. "But in art development, we should not copy the West but create a culture of our own."

Wu says that the Chinese art market will be huge in the future. "Most families only buy one television, but paintings can be hung in every room," he explained. 




Development bottleneck

As the market grows in China, especially in coastal areas, several more art zones like Dafen have also been built in other parts of China, such as in Yiwu, Zhejiang and Xiamen in Fujian Province, according to Wu, challenging Dafen's dominance of the domestic industry.

In addition to this expanding domestic supply, Dafen's art factories are facing rising rents and labor costs in Shenzhen, one of China's most developed metropolises which has seen property prices rocket in recent years.

In addition, Dafen-like villages have emerged in Southeast Asia where costs are much lower and they are attracting Western orders, Wu said.

"Dafen needs to reform to stop its decline," he noted, adding that "production costs have almost grown tenfold in recent years." Dafen's annual output has decreased in the same period.

"The thriving online trade has greatly affected Dafen, as many dealers buy paintings online, thus there is no need for the industry to be concentrated in one place," Zhao said.

He also complained that the local government is not doing enough to nurture Dafen's art industry, as it has done nothing to prevent landlords from raising rents over and over again. "Many painters I knew in Dafen have moved elsewhere," he said.

Wu said Dafen's development suffers from a bottleneck. The space in Dafen's galleries and factories is nearly all occupied; painting samples are even hung in toilets and stairways. The local government has been helping art companies expand their space, renovate their facilities and upgrade their outdated production methods.

However, Yu Sheng believes that only the fittest will survive Dafen's transition.

"Vicious competition is the byproduct of Dafen's quick development. Too many similar products were being made. Now Dafen is adjusting itself. Many originals and unique products have come out," Yu argued.

Many replica painters have become original artists and the industry is also moving toward being professional and differentiated, he added.

To nurture masters

Dafen still relies on replicas, but Yu said they are now paying much more attention to nurturing high-level original artists.

Before, painters from Dafen rarely won awards or joined official artist associations, but now most painting competitions in Guangdong are won by artists based in the village. More than 20 Dafen painters have had their artistic achievements recognized with membership of the Chinese Artists Association (CAA), Yu cited.

The CAA is the only national academic fine art organization in China and has 15,500 members who have all been judged as having outstanding artistic success.

The local government has also supported Dafen's attempts to improve its reputation. They have sponsored artists to help them participate in exhibitions overseas.

"We want to show that Dafen not only has high-quality replicas, but also top-notch originals," Yu said. He has gone to the US and South Korea with Dafen painters several times in recent years.

But still, Wu says that Dafen still lacks enough talents and needs to attract graduates from the country's major academies of fine arts.

Dafen is now home to around 8,000 painters and 1,200 galleries. Wu said he hopes Dafen will one day be home to tens of thousands of artists and he harbors the ambition that the village can become the artistic center of Asia, or even the world, he said.

However, Qu Wanrong, an amateur painter in Yichang, Hubei Province believes the environment needed to nurture great painters isn't great.

"There are customers who visit me and ask to buy my works. But there are quite few. Those who understand paintings are few and far between," he lamented. "Many artists live a hard life."

He mentioned a WeChat post he recently read by renowned oil painter Zhuang Baolin said that few Chinese can be seen visiting Paris's Louvre Museum but plenty can be found in the nearby high-end fashion stores.

Yu admitted that the Chinese public's ability to appreciate art is still lagging behind Western countries. "They have aesthetic education from primary school onwards," he said.

Newspaper headline: Different strokes

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