China economy

China’s art copy capital struggles to change its reputation

  • 40 years after Deng Xiaoping’s opening up reforms Dafen has seen its fortunes rise and fall
  • Can declining overseas orders be replaced with a demand for original art?
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 11:27pm

As China celebrates the 40th anniversary of its opening up reforms, one village in southern China – once an art reproductions powerhouse – is pondering its future.

Dafen, a tiny but densely populated district in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, was once an obscure village of 300 rice growers.

But a few short years after former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy in 1978, it became an international hub, at one time accounting for 75 per cent of the world’s oil painting reproductions.

Dafen has 1,200 galleries and art businesses, employing 20,000 people, and in 2017 its output reached 4.15 billion yuan (US$601 million).

Vincent van Gogh’s swirling dreamscape vision of the night sky, the iconic The Starry Night is estimated to be worth more than US$100 million.

Ma Chunyan, a 32-year-old artist in Dafen, can produce in one day a 1,000 yuan (US$145) reproduction of the masterpiece from an image on her mobile phone.

Ma is one of 8,000 painters creating copies of Western art in Dafen for a market which has never returned since the global financial crisis in 2008 when foreign demand for art reproductions fell.

The declining overseas orders have spurred the local government to embark on a plan to transform Dafen into a producer of original works instead.

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Success remains elusive, however, with demand for Dafen’s original art tepid and artists who are interested in creating original works few and far between.

To attract artists, Dafen has invested 100 million yuan in an art museum and built 268 flats to accommodate the painters who live there. The town now has 300 artists focusing on original works.

However, Chen Jingyang, an original artist who has been in Dafen for 12 years, is not very optimistic about the future.

“The big buyers know that the market here used to be famous for copies, and it was a low-end market, so not many are coming for the original paintings,” Chen said.